In my previous post I suggested that persons and cultures, our very realities, are narrative in structure. What happens when you interrupt such narratives? Many of us are finding out, thanks to our increasingly ubiquitous and much-beloved digital communication technologies. There follow two especially obvious ways this is happening.
Applying a cell phone to the side of one's head in public has the effect of disconnecting the brain. In this condition, cellphone users show characteristic signs of aimlessness, milling about on sidewalks and bumping into things. At the same time they lose all sense of courtesy, entering a solipsistic world wherein lanes of sidewalk traffic and right of way on escalators cease to exist. They step outside the collective narrative that is our conventional civil society.
Yammer away all you like, forget about the person standing next to you on the Skytrain. Sure. And pose in generally awkward locations as — compliments of the advertising industry and celebrity stooges — you slip into one prefab persona or another, aping the beautiful brainless people, exulting over how cool you are as, phone clapped upside your head, you stand framed in doorways and at the tops of escalators. The idea that you are both cool and connected is the only storyline establishing the continuity of these moments. This is who you are.
Musing along these lines, I suddenly realized something. A parallel kind of thing afflicts me when I succumb to the Internet urge. It’s as though the narrative that is me, as I want to think of myself, is abruptly paused. Confronted with iMail, Facebook, Skype, Google, etc., my attention explodes across the many distractions at hand. And, in some way I can’t articulate very well, my sense of self becomes diffused in the same way.
spring day darkening:
the locust digital swarm
eats my absent mind
In part, I metamorphose into something like a lab rat with an electrode planted in its pleasure center, hitting the jolt-me button again and again in preference even to the buttons for food or sex, even unto dying of friggin’ starvation. But that’s just a white rat, eh? Whereas I am a card-carrying member of the elite species Homo sapiens. So I don’t need no stinkin’ electrode stuck in my hypothalamus. No, I simply go online, where I can get many, many discrete little hits of dopamine, dipping away like a demented dipstick till all my creative projects lie dead in heaps on my study floor. We call this a higher-order activity. It’s Progress.
But it’s such a relief not to have to concentrate on anything. What a gas, the relative ease of bumping around, Brownian particle-fashion, among the myriad other bits of persons and their digital spoor, just going with it, eh? Wherever, and whatever. Like I’m being absorbed by the collectivity, and there’s no real “me” left to worry about things. Until I re-emerge from cyberspace which, at least so far, we all have to do eventually.
“Just turn off the Internet router,” my Sara tells me. Right.
The "Walking Zombies" image is used with permission from ChargeAll.
“[U]se of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that's also a connector—but it's a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”
Rightfully, I think, there's been a reaction to the venerable prescriptive school of grammar and punctuation. The modern tendency is to go instead with current usage. But some people — and Hitchings might be one of them, if I read his attitude to semicolons correctly — go too far with that. Perhaps what he really meant has been corrupted in its editing. I can’t believe that someone with his background and evident writing skills could describe the semicolon as a mere “trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”
I’m all for minimalism in most spheres of this life; and in no way would I advocate unnecessary and obtrusive punctuation merely on the grounds that I attended Grenville High School, in Quebec, where I was suspended for offenses that modesty forbids I specify. (The year I was in Grade 9, just incidentally, the teachers’ association declared Grenville High the worst school in the entire province and barred Association teachers, i.e. any officially qualified teachers, from teaching there.)
But letting the semicolon go officially extinct would mean competent writers lose a valuable tool for no other reason than pundits yield to current popular taste. The way things are going, we could be left with little more than a few Anglo-Saxon grunts ornamented with full stops, question marks and—for the few writers who still use relatively complex sentences and don’t mind appearing affected—commas. Oh, I forgot!!! And exclamation marks, those handy and hugely popular vehicles of spurious verve and melodrama à la mode. (Doesn’t matter. Whatever. Emoticons are meanwhile threatening to relegate words and punctuation to wherever the dodos have gone.) Mass criteria of the good rool, OK!
I use semicolons sparingly. I'm in no way emotionally attached to them. Used appropriately, however, they make essential contributions to clear prose. Hitchings’ apparent belief that the semicolon is nothing but an affectation among a few ponces is utter rubbish.
Where current usage can be shown to be destructive of effective prose, then it should be resisted. Semicolons rool, OK!
Here are some surplus semicolons I avoided using in the foregoing: ;;;;;;;;;. Help yourself.
Assailed once again by the notion I should instead be working on a novel, I offer a brace of haikus.
Complex items in a list,
As in: “Punctuation clarifies prose by establishing logical relations, e.g. in distinguishing defining from non-defining relative clauses; by reflecting spoken language, with its pauses for breath or dramatic effect, e.g., or by evoking tones of interrogation, surprise, disbelief, and so on; and simply by providing a rest for short-term memory and attention when a sentence starts going stylistically all Hegelian on you.” Try reading that without the semicolons.
Or in this case (I know we could have two sentences instead, but considerations of meaning or rhythm can mean the semi-colon is better): “He went through the manuscript of ‘How You Know When You’ve Finished Revising,’ culling commas where he could; later in the day, he went back and reinstalled most of them. Then he sent it away.”
To stop or only to pause?
Find the middle way.
The Wal-Mart sign (above) is meant to be ironic, isn't it?
Two years after his death, Michael Jackson is back in the news, with his former doctor defending himself against charges of involuntary manslaughter. I’m not sure what emotions this case is arousing in the general public, but it has caused me to revisit my first reaction to the so-called King of Pop’s untimely passing.
“A long time after painting [his first wife] Camille on her deathbed, Monet confessed to his friend Georges Clemenceau about the pain or shock he felt when he suddenly realized, while painting [Camille Monet sur son lit de mort] that he was studying her pallid face and noting the tiny variations of tone and color brought about by death, as if they were an observable everyday matter! He ended by saying: ‘Ainsi de la bête qui tourne sa meule. Plaignez-moi, mon ami.’ (Like the beast who turns his millstone. Pity me, my friend.)”
John Berger, “The Enveloping Air: Light and moment in Monet” (Harper’s, January 2011).
My own initial reaction to Michael Jackson’s death presented a real parallel to Monet's experience, and makes me question my own compassion.
Of course Jackson’s passing was sad—his whole life was sad, by many accounts. And what was my immediate response upon hearing the news? What a pity, I thought. I’d looked forward to seeing where his continuing reinvention of himself would eventually lead. But now I could no longer enjoy imagining the range of potential 80-year-old Jackson personae.
Does that strike you as callous?
Maybe. But, beyond his curiosity value, Jackon, effectively, was a leading exponent of a novel evolutionary development. Cultural evolution has long since superceded biological evolution. And now, what with advances in plastic surgery, bioengineering, and cyborg-type replacement parts and augmentations, human beings are increasingly taking a deliberate hand in their own design (and all this to much applause from the Transhumanists).
Which leads me to the following proposition. Jackson’s real contribution to posterity might have been this: He was our canary in what is becoming an ever deeper and more mysterious pit of our own devising, filled with perils we cannot yet see.
And now our canary is dead.
RIP MJ. I offer commemorative haikus (which, as I’ve said before, are much easier than writing books).
Michael Jackson, our
Canary in a soul mine.
Michael Jackson, our
Ingenue in a gold mine.
Michael Jackson, dead.
Stylish Jackson death.
New Michael Jackson
We’ll never know.
It occurs to me to ask: Will I be able to view myself with the same writerly dispassion, as I morph away over the years remaining to me? I’ve already had my eyes lasiked; not long ago I had a bathmat installed in my thorax (patching a ventral hernia, or containing the alien? ); there’s every chance that, should I live long enough, I’ll wind up the proud owner of artificial knees… Hell, they’ll probably be implanting info & communications chips right into our heads even before I get around to retiring my already antique, nearly four-year-old iPhone 2G.
Click on the first photo for a progressive portrait of Jackson over his life. (It has occurred to me that visitors often don't realize that many of the illustrations in these posts are linked to URLs.)
I recently saw Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, with Michael Douglas doing a job of personifying greed for the first time since the first Wall Street, which won relatively more favorable critical notice, came out in 1987.
Critical opinion on Rotten Tomatoes seems about evenly divided. But I tend to be a-critical when I'm in the mood for escapism, and I reckon this film did the trick very nicely. I'd recommend it for fans and enemies of greed alike, if all they're after is a good time, with characters they can hate as well as characters they won't hate, with everyone getting redeemed before it's all over, transformed by their essential humanity and other unlikely eventualities.
It just happens I had an apposite haiku lying around (a "haiga," really, since it comes complete with an illustration, also by yours truly).
mega harvest moon —
giant gekko in grip of
most delightful greed
One writer, however much tongue in cheek, has actually expressed admiration for addicts:
I admire addicts. In a world where everybody is waiting for some blind, random disaster, or some sudden disease, the addict has the comfort of knowing what will most likely wait for him down the road. He's taken some control over his ultimate fate, and his addiction keeps the cause of death from being a total surprise. ~ Chuck Palahniuk
Overall, though, even Palahniuk would probably concede that this advantage—a modicum of autonomy regarding the nature of your eventual passing (a half-assed sort of “suicide,” in plain terms)—is generally outweighed by a range of ill effects.
Traditionally, writers have too often succumbed to the temptations of drink, drugs and complicated women (or men). Among modern writers, however, the Internet threatens to become the biggest killer of creativity and real social lives. (Have a look, e.g., at Edward Tenner’s review in the Wilson Quarterly of recent books arguing two sides of the issue: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, by Clay Shirky.)
Online existence becomes ever-more seductive at the same time concern grows at what harm it might be doing us. What isn’t at issue: In this brave new digital universe we inhabit, we tend to bathe our brains in a heady punch of dopamine (see, e.g., Psychology Today) and dangerous stress-induced chemicals (seen New York Times story). Parked there in front of your computer browsing the Web and answering e-mail, you can launch yourself on a fine gonzo adventure complete with “natural” uppers and downers and hangovers, not to mention disaffected better halves and everything.
My own Internet addiction has maybe left enough of a concentration span to compose haikus:
You have mail
A dopamine fix.
Novels, on the other hand, require more attention. Unfortunately, my various projects mean I can't go cold turkey with the Internet, but I do need to find some way of disciplining myself. Something more effective than Sara's Rx.
"Just be more disciplined," she tells me.
I recently installed a program called Freedom, which is supposed to make discipline unnecessary. And it really works—you tell it how many hours you want to be independent of the Internet, and it forbids you access to all your communication programs for exactly that long. Plead and weep as much as you like; tell Freedom that Hollywood might be trying to e-mail you right now with an offer that expires in 20 minutes. There’s nothing you can do to change its mind. No recourse. Other than to go to your other computer, where you were careful not to install Freedom. Or simply refuse to activate Freedom. You may forget for months at a time, as I have, that you even have this program that set you back $15.
Now Sara tells me, “Just be more disciplined. Force yourself to activate Freedom every morning before you start your day.”
Right. But where do I find a program that activates Freedom automatically?
Has anyone else noticed what's happening with skirts and short-shorts around Bangkok? (Or are writers just unusually perceptive?) Are there such things as benign epidemics?
Haikus are so much easier to write than novels. Of course the commercial prospects, including their chances on the Big Screen, are even more uncertain. Whatever. Here's what I'm going to call a mixed-media haiku.
A spiritual (to be sung with full chorus)
Ascending, praise be,
Heavenwards. Oh, Lord.
“Alice” fans and critics (see my last post) likely fall into opposing iPad and Kindle/Sony camps. The former will view Alice as a new and improved kind of reading: "Great! It's just like browsing the Internet." The latter -- i.e. those who actually enjoy extended reading -- will view it with horror: "Whoa! This is just one more patch of digital quicksand."
In the spirit of deteriorating attention spans and debilitated Muses, and because it's way easier than writing a novel, I give you a haiku:
fall day darkening:
the locust digital swarm
eats my absent mind
Just by the way, here’s a reasoned argument for why paper books will persist.
It's my turn to compliment Jack on a nice turn of phrase, one I'm now going to adapt to yet another haiku, which, as anybody can tell you, is easier than writing a novel.
Dead horse abuzz with blowflies
Conjures the World Cup.
“Not beautiful,” is Sara's opinion. She could be right. But, hey. There are already enough haiku-ish conventions without some rule it's also got to be beautiful.
The illustration is from David M. Hart's webpage, “War and Art.”
In the interests of conciseness, a fundamental rule of good writing style, and seeing how much Jack likes my turns of phrase, I've converted much of my lengthy “Licking doorknobs” post of 19 June -- a tribute to investors and financial analysts everywhere -- into a haiku:
Dark skies gravid with
Bears sail arks of gold.
Hey, it's got 17 syllables. What more do you expect? Maybe Jack or his “nameless scrivener” can tell me if the Wall Street Journal buys haikus.