“You are not wise.”

Alex Reid’s input to the question of speculative realist lit crit sparked an idea that isn’t new to me (or probably anyone) that I thought I’d throw it up here anyway.

When I was training in creative writing (poetry, MFA, Old Dominion U), my thesis director was fond of saying “You’re not going to tell me anything I don’t already know. You are not wise.” I took this to mean (and still do) that the writer has no special insight into the animal, vegetable, or mineral condition. What the creative (and, I suppose, any successful) writer hopes to do is create an occasion. The project is to create a thing (we actually called poems things then) that had shape, built ethos through techne, was superficially appealing, while at the same time allowed for uses the writer had never considered, maybe even could never consider. After poetry readings, for instance, folks might come up to me and say “I really liked the poem about….” and I would only know which one they meant from the nouns they used that I recognized from the poem.

Leaving aside the question of whether my own poems were literature (I had some successes), I’m thinking about lit in terms of potential and hacking per my last few posts. Using the tricks of the trade, as it were, poets build in potential exploits via word choices and combinations, sure, but also in line breaks (enjambed or not), in white space, diction, meter, all that. Far from trying to plan for every contingency, the job of the poet is to multiply potential occasions (dunamis), to make a thing that is useful beyond whatever was derived from its composing. So whereas I agree that there’s no truth to discover (no innate wisdom wrapped in a container) in literary or other writing, that it’s about composing knowledge, I do think that one’s encounter with these potential exploits as an occasion (a contingent encounter between two or more things) may feel like discovery. (And this is maybe what’s meant by authenticity?)

One of the things Pride & Prejudice & Zombies from a few years back demonstrated (and rhetoric is a kind of demonstration) is that the Austen book could have always had zombies in it. It just took Grahame-Smith to discover that for us.

To my mind, the above may not be all that OOO, since it’s less about keeping things flat and separate and more about encounters, potential, exploitation, etc. And none of this is new. It’s what Scott meant when he kept telling me I’m not wise.

If I had (something that could be made to work as) a hammer

In a comment to my last post, Cedrick pointed out:

Though I certainly fall more on the hack side of things, I think the yack is nevertheless important and I engage in it daily with my classes. I say this with one caveat: as you suggest, code is a theoretical construct in itself. Anyone doing work in digital humanities work should be willing to understand and be involved in the coding side of things rather than just focusing on the surface of the tech being examined.

Right-o. And those who study literature should take creative writing classes. While I don’t (or haven’t) worked much in the digital humanities, I feel what Cedrick describes pretty often as I try to cobble a media piece to explore some idea I have and need to see and then my few skills fail me. But my previous post was mostly quibbling with the notion of hack as “just” composing. I wonder if hacking isn’t more like substantial revision, in which one discovers and exploits some potential in the thing that arises through some contingent exigency? Of course, composing is also about exploring potential, etc., but it doesn’t often get thought of in those terms (hence, the “just”). For me, revision is where the fun is. In these terms, body modification folks who’re “hacking the properties of the device they’re born with” are revising substantially, I’d say.

One complaint about theory I found in the blog discussions used the axiom “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s certainly a complaint, I guess, as it points out that, say, a post-colonial reading is going to treat its object as something postcolonial and maybe ignore other possibilities. But maybe hacking is more like “When you discover a nail, you start looking around for what can be used as a hammer”? That is, you reuse, re-purpose, exploit what you have available at that moment. My thought is, I guess, to align hack with rhetoric under the banner of contingency.

A side note is that the hack vs. yack argument reminds me very much of the creative writing vs. theory arguments from decades back. “Creative writers produce! Theory people just talk about our work after we’ve moved on.” Much like Ion, creative writers really like the ideas of inspiration, possession, individual genius. Theory folks just don’t get it. My first graduate hat was as an MFA poet who discovered (Lacanian) theory accidentally. I’ve since then balked at so easy a distinction. Back then, though, the creative writers bought the expensive chips and depended on all-natural authenticity.

More chips and more hack

Ron Brooks pointed me to a great example of the kind of authenticity I described in my first post.

The pithily titled “Enticing words printed on bags of potato chips have a lot to say about social class, Stanford researchers find”  argues that “whether you crunch an ordinary chip or the priciest-exotic-root-vegetable chip, consumers of all social classes value the product that they think is most authentic.” The rundown of this study points to differences between claims at authenticity where the least expensive chips packagings frequently refer to tradition, nation or region, old family recipes, etc. and pricier chips evoke natural, hand-made, small-batch sea-saltiness.

What I like about this is the assumption that authenticity is manufactured as much as it is evoked. Or, rather, its summoning is also its creation. So, some chips bank on heritage and patriotism while others conjure a pure nature and craftsmanship. Really, both depend on closing the distance via nostalgia for a values lost to the past and/or a nature unavailable in the city. And so there would be nothing “authentic” in gathering your family to the kitchen to slice and fry up your own potato chips. That’s work.

Which brings me very late to the fascinating discussion of theory and the Digital Humanities that occurred a few weeks back. While it’s taking a while to catch up and this isn’t exactly my field, it seems to me that a great deal of the discussion focuses on what counts as theory. It isn’t difficult to see the “more hack, less yack” mantra as an argument that hack is more authentic (in this sense, practical and useful and human) than the yack that is theory. Many others point out that practice is always predicated on theory and that theory is a kind of hacking, too. Fair enough. But while there is a lot of discussion about what counts as theory and it value, there is (with a few exceptions) not a lot of attention paid to what counts as hacking. By and large, at least in the discussions and posts I read, it seems that hacking means coding, data management, etc.

This is certainly a broader definition that I offered before and I wonder if it’s too broad. If any kind of tool production is counted as a hack, then is there much difference between the coding and theory? I mean, I suppose making a hammer means hacking a tree and a mountain (for wood and metal) in order to discover some new potential in them. So hacking is defined by a goal and its means are exploitation. (Exploitation can be good; it means spelunking the gap.) Theory – and especially the philosophical kind – does pretty much the same thing to the library, etc., right? I don’t know.

Regardless, in the phrasing “more hack, less yack,” folks responded to the dismissive yack pretty strongly. It might not have been meant so aggressively, though. It’s entirely possible that it was meant to just be fun and colloquial. Yack also rhymes with hack, and so was maybe chosen for that rhyme? If so, hack counts first. There’s a mystique to hacking – movies, books, all that – that can certainly be capitalized on, and that mystique (myth) of the hacker is everywhere these days. Hack is rebellious and young.  Yacking is what old people do. And hacking seems more American. Or less European (theory is European). Hack is definitely more punk rock. And nothing matters more to punk than authenticity.

We aren’t zeros!

Grinder symbol in Doktor Sleepless

In The Lost Cause of Rhetoric, David Metzger points out that Aristotle, when he defines rhetoric he calls it a dunamis, “a faculty for discovering the available means of persuasion.” This means (among other things) that rhetoric is not any specific act or performance, but is primarily the condition for any such act. It is potential. I wonder if it’s possible to talk about hacking in these terms. What seems to differentiate the hack from the prosthetic (that talk I linked to last note) is that the latter is a replacement in kind, a surrogate that may or may not live up to the standards or utility of the original (and may or may not appear authentic). The hack, though, is all about new functionality. So it might be that all hacks are prosthetic (though maybe they address a lack, not a loss?) but not all prosthetics are hacks? Is it wrong to maybe think this is a way of reading Ellis’s “the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future” (in Shivering Sands)? Does the future mean potential?

Then the question would be how does one perform the future in a way that makes it available, palatable, “authentic” for others? I think it’s Shaviro’s talk on Doktor Sleepless that points out that we can’t seem to escape the cyberpunk future of the 1980s. Certainly, complaining that we don’t have jetpacks refers to the 1950s as much as now. If (also in that talk of mine) authenticity depends on a certain distance that is both necessary and hidden, can distance in time, both past-present and future-present, be read (or felt or whatever) as identical? Vladimir Nabokov (in his autobiography?) said something like the reason so many people imagine an afterlife is that they can’t deal with two voids (one after their deaths and one before their births; I think the occasion was seeing photos of his nursery taken before he was born; it was unsettling).

Anyway, I remember the simplest piece of powerful rhetoric I ever encountered was on the Long Now Foundation website in, maybe, 1998? And it was that the year was written as 01998. That “0” registers as potential in all the right ways. But it occurs to me that no one would write the date of a thousand years prior as 0998. Actually, that “0” is pretty horrifying, since it’s us.

Some thoughts I don’t have yet

[What follows is my very first blog post ever and represents some first thoughts on a new project I might take up once I’ve done some real reading and thinking. For these reasons, please be charitable.]

Recently, some colleagues and I proposed a panel for the Identification-themed 2012 RSA conference. It begins:

What is authenticity? How does the authentic register in the strange? How might the authentic be performed or marketed? In what ways does the authentic conjure or deny identification? This panel takes up the call of the authentic as a mode for and against identification and considers ways in which authenticity is-or-can-be an argument for what is foreign and familiar to an audience. Just as the phrase “Authentic Mexican Food” makes sense only outside of Mexico, the panel contends that any invocation of authenticity depends on a kind of spatial or temporal distance and that the use of “authentic” is an attempt to either elide or reify that distance for an audience, to make the exotic and strange seem homely or to maintain a comfortable strangeness in order to allow for identification.

What I’ve come to suspect is that any claim about the authentic relies on a certain distance from the object in question. For example, my own personal realization of a standard post-colonial trope happened during the last Democratic Presidential primary. During one of the debates, when the field was still large, one pundit commented that the choice of a nominee would come down to which candidate seemed most authentic to the voter. At that exact moment, I reached for a bag of tortilla chips that was emblazoned with the slogan “Authentic Mexican Taste” and, with that coincidence, realized the problem. “Authentic Mexican Taste” only makes sense outside of (a mythic) Mexico. (Of course, you can see that referenced in the proposal, but this distance may be very much like the distance insisted on by medieval courtly love narratives, too).

Anyway, I’d like to follow up on these ideas. I’ve made some headway already, in an article that appeared last year in Popular Culture Review on the show Mad Men and in a talk on RealDolls and Reborns I gave at the 2009 RSA. Since I’ve tackled the “past” in the former and the “present” in the latter, I’m looking to the “future” now! And the stuff I’ve been reading/watching/listening to (mostly coincidentally) has been Bruce Sterling’s discussions of atemporality, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, some of Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism and Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, along with my usual psychoanalytic stuff. But what’s really been exciting me is the comic/graphic novel work of Warren Ellis (to whom I’ve come late, I know), especially the unfinished Doktor Sleepless series:

It’s 1991.

Richey Manic is carving something into his arm because Steve Lamacq has suggested the Manic Street Preachers lack an essential authenticity.

What’s echoing in this backstage room is the voice of Ian Brown, still say “cos it’s 1989. To to get real.”

In 1999, godspeed you! Black Emperor start releasing CDs sleeved in untreated cardboard. Intended or not, it denotes authenticity. Keeping it real.


Godspeed’s brand was authenticity. That’s what they had to sell. And if they didn’t sell records and gig tickets, then they were just twelve guys in Montreal eating Ramen until they died.

Richey Edwards couldn’t be Richey Manic, that Richey, unless he sold you on the concept that he was 4 real.

Ian Brown and the Stone Roses couldn’t be that band, the band of the moment with the authentic voice that turned out to be the band in the right place at the right time and raised everyone up–unless they were more real than you.

Around the turn of the century, Justin Timberlake began to carry around with him a group of black vocalists, whose job it apparently was, in live performances, to declare how “real” Justin Timberlake was before he began to sing.


Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

I’ve cut out a lot from this speech the eponymous Doktor Sleepless gives, but you can see the point. Except that this is a guy who dresses like an Old Hollywood Mad Scientist and is, well, likely the bad guy. And he’s addressing in part a problem he’s seen in reactions to a movement he helped start. Called Grinders, these are mostly young people who practice extreme body modification (this book is set in the “future”):

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society. Free speech does not extend to our own bodies.


Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention. Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.

I am certainly Lacanian enough not to believe in an authentic self and I frankly find a lot to be afraid of in this kind of call for authenticity. But there’s this great hope-in-hopelessness thing here I like. One of the points Bruce Sterling has been making about the atemporality of the present is that we don’t seem to have a future any more. Many of us can remember when the future was the year 2000. It kind of stayed there (Conan O’Brien’s bit kept the same year even after, right?). So Sterling points out that versions of the future now start from the past – steam-punk, diesel-punk, whatever. Of course, cyber-punk started a few decades (give or take) earlier, but the gesture is kind of the same. Except that maybe the cyber-kind was most directly drawing from a “hacking” aesthetic. Those others look back to dead-ish technologies and fancy them up, whereas hacking seems about reuse and – more importantly – repurposing. So, William Gibson’s famous “the street finds its own uses for things.” In Shivering Sands, Ellis argues:

We have become entrained to step outside of the stated rules of a device’s operation in order to get it to do what we want. Put another way: we’re all hackers now. That’s exactly what bodymod people [the Grinders of Sleepless, for example] are doing – hacking the properties of the device they’re born with.

I know, this raises the whole cyborg thing. I’ don’t want to go over the critiques of that right now (What Is Posthumanism mentioned above does that well). But I’m wondering if this idea of difference between the design of a device (even the body) and its potential properties isn’t something like the distance or gap I described far above as a hallmark of the authentic? And maybe this gap is the bar of the Lacanian split subject? Which may be all to say that the missing cause, the wholly assumed or posited object of authenticity can be rendered (maybe in fantasy) as the future? Ellis writes in Sands, “For as long as I can remember, the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future.” And these outbreaks can be fictions, right? Colette Soler argued for literature as symptom, and literature is sometime fiction. But Ellis warns, “Don’t let fictions out into the world. You don’t know what’s in them.”

Anyway. My first thoughts on something new (for me) and my first blog post ever. Maybe there’ll be another sometime.