“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.