No Sense to Nonsense: Datum to Demon

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. . . the trick would be to find a theory that didn’t work
-Stanley Fish (68)

 

In Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, an incubus, a lecherous male demon, perches atop a slumbering woman. The woman is depicted in sharp lines and vibrant whites, while the incubus is in soft yellows and browns, its edges fading into the background. The incubus might be understood as belonging to the dream world rather than the physical – a projection of the sleeping woman.

The scene is likely inspired by the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, an advanced state of nightmare thought to be caused by overlapping sleep cycles. During deep-sleep, the brain induces a paralysis to stop the body from acting out dreams. When this cycle overlaps with the waking cycle, the semi-conscious mind becomes aware of the body’s immobility. This vacuum of information (why can’t I move?) cannot be filled rationally (by the still ‘asleep’ senses) so it is filled irrationally (I am being held down / constricted / paralysed).

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The Nightmare

In this singular instance of sleep paralysis, the slumbering woman, experiencing the constriction and shortness of breath common to the episode, projects the image of a demon sitting astride her. While an intensely solitary, alienating experience, this ordeal is informed by a global imagination.

The vacuum of information created by this paralysis is indiscriminate. ‘No sense’ will not filter out nonsense, but rather create it. Sleep paralysis is not just a psychological phenomenon, however, but a cultural one. Because the experience is ubiquitous, afflicting individuals across cultures, gender, generation, etc., its mythological fallout is likewise omnipresent. Beliefs in various monsters and demons thought to cause sleep paralysis can be found in almost every culture. In Scandinavian culture, a cursed woman known as a mare is believed to sit on the ribs of sleepers, causing nightmares (this being the etymological root of the word). In Turkey, sleep paralysis is interpreted as the attack of a jinn, which holds down the victim and slowly strangles them. In Thailand the spirit is named Phi Am (ผีอำ), which men can protect themselves from by sleeping in lipstick. In Eastern Chinese folklore, it is thought that a mouse sits beneath the nostrils and steals the sleeper’s breath.

 

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Found image, artist unknown.

 

Sleep paralysis and its surrounding mythology are a near perfect idea ‘feedback loop’; it both births and sustains its own mythology. If there is a ‘known’ cause for such an experience (a demonic visitation) then this will be used to fill the void caused by the epistemological disconnect (the brain’s inability to sense a reason for the constriction). The mind may therefore project the image of a demon, using its knowledge of the myth as a blueprint. Upon waking, this then ‘confirms’ that the myth is true.

This may be the reason that reports of alien abduction are often localised – the abduction narrative, made tangible by proximity, rests at the ‘event horizon’, and is therefore the first to be sucked in by the brain’s need for explanation (though not sensical explanation). The strange capacity of the human brain to fantasise structure is particularly viscerally expressed in instances like this. It is not, of course, the only area where ‘no sense’ gives birth to nonsense.

Astrology, history, religion, racism, paranoia, etc., are all rooted in the human need for structure, the need to make immediate sense of a huge amount of data. Astrology, for example, asks us to believe that 1/12th of the world, from babes to centenarians, will all find love in a given week, or be betrayed, or reunite with an old friend. People believe this because the narrative of this many millions of people is not available to us. But then,  no one thinks of the fate of Capricorns, rather the fate of themselves as a Capricorn.

I began this essay with a quote from Stanley Fish, “the trick would be to find a theory that didn’t work.” Theories, according to Fish, will always work, and will always produce exactly the results which they predict, results which will be fulfilling to followers of the theory. This is because any theory worth its salt makes itself watertight, impervious to criticism. This is a truism that extends far beyond the confines of literary theory, on which Fish is commenting. Arguments over religion can always be ended by the claim that it is impossible to know God’s will, his divinity being so far beyond human conception. In the same vein, for the adherent it is enough for one aspect of the theory to be ‘proven’ to likewise prove the whole. Taking sleep paralysis as a case-study, the myths surrounding the phenomenon are enforced not because everyone will experience a demon sitting on their chest, but simply a pressure on their chest.In the case of sleep paralysis, the brain can quite literally create the image of a demon from this single datum.

Humans cannot avoid doing the same on a daily basis, however. The strange phenomenon of sleep paralysis simply makes this process far more visceral, more visual. A single incident of an ethnicity or gender conforming to a stereotype, for example, will be taken as proof of its truth (confirmation bias), while someone acting neutral or even contrary to this stereotype will be ignored. Stubbing one’s toe on Friday the 13th will prove that our arbitrary calendar system can warp the fabric of the universe just to fuck with us. With regards to literary theory, a text will always take the shape the reader/theorist intends to give it, because humans naturally seek out order.

These processes, as disconnected as they may seem, are quite the same. It is simply a matter of connecting the millions of narratives we will encounter in our lifetime, into one, defining thread: me.

 

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Fish, Stanley. “What is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It”. Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. London: Harvard University Press, 1980. Print.

The Art of the Speel: The Seductive Pitch of Donald Trump

Trump doesn’t make a point, he makes a pitch.

But he isn’t trying to sell an idea.

What Trump is selling is himself.

 In a video recently published to his Nerdwriter1 Youtube channel, Evan Puschak deconstructs the language used by Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. Puschak contends that Trump’s great gift is a “huckster’s knack for selling a feeling.” Not for Trump is the careful, measured rhetoric of the political class, rather the simple, rapid and emotive speel of the salesman.

 

 

Puschak chooses an excerpt from Trump’s appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show, a 220 word, 1 minute answer to Kimmel’s question, “Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion?” Puschak notes that 78% of the 220 words are just 1 syllable long. Of these, the same emotive terms crop up again and again. In fact, Trump spews negativity, lacing his speech with highly evocative words like problem, dead, die, bedlam, harm, injured, hatred. He fits all these and more into just a one minute answer.

Trump also constantly issues commands to his audience. Three times he tells us to ‘look’: “Look at what happened in Paris . . . Look at what happened in Paris. Look at what happened last week in California.” After the impetus to look, he then asks us to remember, remember that when he first called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering America there was bedlam, but “you watch last night, and you see people talking. They said, “Well, Trump has a point.”

I will break from following Puschak’s analysis here to hang on this last phrase, Trump has a point. Not that Trump is right, not even that Trump has a point and here it is, but just “Trump has a point.” Puschak is right when he identifies Trump’s speech as that of a salesman rather than a politician. And a good salesman knows that different audiences require different pitches. So . . . who is Trump’s audience?

Physically, Trump is sitting opposite a liberal talk-show host, a satirist who has ripped into him on a weekly basis, whose bias is very clearly laid out in how he poses his question. The physical audience likewise shows their bias in cheering for Kimmel’s question. On a much larger scale, the show is being broadcasted, primarily, to people who like to watch the liberal satirist rip into people like Trump. And Donald Trump is well aware of this.

Trump doesn’t make a point, he makes a pitch. But he isn’t trying to sell an idea. What Trump is selling is himself

At no point does Donald Trump argue his point. In fact, he downright refuses to, knowing he would be selling it to the completely wrong market. He actually appears somewhat embarrassed when acknowledges that he is ‘for’ such discrimination, but his answer details only that there is a problem, and that people are considering his view of it. All Trump wants to impart to the audience is one idea – Trump might have a point. He doesn’t give the slightest detail about border control, nor does he claim himself to be right. What he is selling is a reason to come back.

Puschak keeps his analysis to that clean one minute of Trump’s speech, but what happens next is crucial to understanding Trump’s implied audience, who he has catered his answer towards. After shrugging off light questions from Kimmel, Trump moves the conversation, without segué, to the Iraq War. Suddenly, his language changes. His speel is still characteristically Trumpian. He repeats key words, “We need strength in this country. We don’t have strength.” But new terms spring up too. In his first answer Trump used only four four-syllable words, three of which were the word tremendous, the last being temporary, which he devours, compressing into two syllables. The Trump we see in this answer however comes out with sentences like “Our military is being dissipated,” and reminds the viewers that back in 2003/2004 he warned that the Iraq War would “destabilise the Middle-East.”

Here Trump has found a topic that he can sell to this particular audience. While he has no specifics to give about his current plans, he bombards the audience with numbers on Iraq: “We’ve spent three trillion dollars, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place. And what do we have, we have nothing. So stupid.”

In juxtaposition to his first answer, his ploy here is pretty clear. He’s not going to sell Kimmel or his audience on his plan to temporarily ban Muslims. So he doesn’t even try. Instead, he leaves them with the idea that Trump may just have a point, and, not all that subtly, moves the conversation to a topic that they will agree with him on. This movement is important. The audience Trump is playing starts off disagreeing with him (claps at Kimmel’s question), moves to interest (no response to Kimmel’s next quip), and finally ends up agreeing on his final point, which Kimmel just lets Trump have.

Puschak ends his video with a reminder to look at Trump’s words. I’ll add to this a reminder to look at his audience, and how easy it is to buy into a point that Trump, ostensibly, doesn’t even try to sell.

Tentative Beginnings, Strident Assertions?

There is a tendency in the writing of literary critics to justify their profession, which I don’t imagine exists in the academic journals of engineers or doctors. The justifying and celebrating of one’s own research is no doubt ubiquitous, a feature of every field, but I can scarce imagine, for example, a paper on the possibilities entailed by a new cancer treatment taking the time to assure its readers (and its writer) that the work they do is important. This self-consciousness, and I think that is what this is, is not necessarily omnipresent in literary criticism, but it rears its head just often enough for the ignoring of it to become an activity in itself.

The current focus of my research is reader response theory, a now rarely seen mode of criticism which focuses on the reader as textual destination, as the maker of meaning, the imaginative and interpretive agent without which the text itself – novel, film, poem etc – would be rendered dumb, inert. Like most newborn PhDs, I spend most of my time looking for nourishment, which in this metaphor is the chapped and high-hanging teat of government funding. My work therefore is not merely adapting reader response, a theory which hasn’t been popular for near thirty years, it is rather bravely seeking to resurrect it, to restore its rightful place in The Academy, from whence it was unjustly banished.

I too am well used to the language of ‘justification’.

Research proposals fall into the same category as CVs, however, so one can get away with putting their best food forward. In fact, the only thing you can’t get away with is any measure of humility. Outside of such confines, the couching of one’s research in such language feels almost obsequious, at least until the editing stage. Here, the maybes, perhapses, possiblies, and ‘one mights’ that you have hemmed your argument oh so tentatively in just come between the reader and your point.

So perhaps this too, then, is a form of ego, or ego protection?

While it is natural to want some manner of barrier between the feral world of academia and your own research, the ego fallout that I described at the beginning of this article seems a different beast. My recent exposure to this was in Jane Tompkin’s “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism”, wherein she summarises a number of the theories which she considers to the core to the field, and which very visible radiate this peculiar trend of self-praise.

Walker Gibson, for example, claimed in a 1950 article that reading literary texts with an awareness of the ‘mock reader’, the type of reader which the text is overtly or covertly addressed to, will specifically benefit the student on moral grounds. By allowing them to accept or reject the role the novelist offers, they are, he argues, made more aware of their own value system, and better able to deal with problems of self-definition (xi).

Wolfgang Iser, who sees the reading process as a creative union, wherein the reader actively and artistically participates in the process of meaning making, argues that :

“the production of the meaning of literary texts . . . also entails the possibility that we may formulate ourselves and so discover what had previously seemed to elude our consciousness” (xv).

Tompkins, describing these critics in close proximity, is quick to notice what had also struck me:

“By this point it is possible to see that focusing on the reader engenders a species of moral drama in the domain of criticism . . . the refining of one’s moral sensors (Gibson), adding to the sum of human knowledge (Prince), coming ever closer to the truth through attention to linguistic detail (Riffaterre), achieving self-transcendence through self-effacement (Poulet), or building a better self through interpretive enterprise (Iser)” (xv-xvi).

Tompkins’ summary actually dilutes the moral strain in a number of these essays. Each may, admittedly, be slight in a vacuum, but in succession they represent a much wider and often stronger realised phenomenon. But what place do such declarations have in academic essays, these gestures towards the virtues of reading (criticising?) or, more aptly, reading in a particular way, obviously the way espoused by each respective author?

I often ask myself whether literary criticism is not just another arm of the entertainment industry, and whether the whole ‘academic bearing’ and Ivory Tower isn’t just a big ploy to keep us employed and funded. I’m not sure this is a hypothesis which all that many of my colleagues, or at least the old guard, would feel comfortable with. . . but, realistically, how many of us who study English at university level do so to master the art of rhetoric, or to develop their communication skills, or to learn how to convince people that they are living in a hyperreality? Applying for funding forces us to look at the actual skills we have developed, most of which seem to surprise to us. Developing systems of analysis, exploring cultural systems and how they are communicated, learning time and project management . . . is it not safe to say that these come as an afterthought, that we study English simply because we like to read and talk about books? Because we did well in it in school? Are these goals, or gains, not simply a ploy to justify studying English over Engineering?

We have all, at some stage, been victimised by critics of this choice. A friend of mine, an Old English scholar, was asked recently what she ‘does for Ireland?’,  in fact what any of us do for our country.

Place of Questioning: Pub.

Inquisitor: Older male, inebriated.

At first glance the question seems ridiculous . . . but it is asked, with greater or lesser levels seriousness, relatively frequently of those in the arts. Those in the Sciences, in Business studies, in Engineering … do not, I imagine, get asked this. They produce something more tangible, more ‘job description’. And I’m under no illusions – the impact of one doctor realistically outweighs ten (more?) literary critics, but we do do something, right?

Rephrase this question and change the venue of its asking and I find, suddenly, that it is one that I have been spending an awful lot of time and sanity on. The funding I am seeking, after all, is from the Irish Research Council, a government body. I am asking for a yearly wage to read and write about books, about literary theories and the applying of them. I, and many, many others, are asking for money that could go into our health services, or go to poverty relief, or infinite other causes with what seem to have far more tangible benefits. So the question is not, therefore, ridiculous, because it is presently being painstakingly answered across the country by scores of the country’s best writers and rhetoricians.

So what do we do?

(Reductionist) Sit in a library and read and write about books.

(Application form) Research and adapt a dynamic critical approach to literary theory, periodically publishing and giving conferences on the subject. Develop a skillset which, while literary criticism is at its core, is buttressed and expressed through . . . etc.

Perhaps realising this constitutes one of the gateways to academia, the ability to notice the ‘nod’ in the work of other academics.

“Don’t pay too much attention to the ‘widescale benefits to humanity’ part, just checking all the boxes needed for funding.”

I can’t answer for anyone else, and I’m not even sure I can confidently answer for past me or for future me. But today is one of those days where I’m excited about my project. Preparing for next semester’s tutorials has really made aware of how useful reader response can be in teaching. You don’t need special, arcane knowledge to ‘unlock’ a novel when you realise that the meaning is made by the reader. Without them, a book could be written in wingdings for all the innate ‘sense’ it has. This morning’s class on ‘how to ask the government for money’ drove in the fact that I will actually be developing a very specific skill set, and should I hop on the spiral slide which is the only exit from academia’s Ivory Tower, I could find myself in marketing, or advertisement, or media.

Anything of course is possible when the subject of one’s research is so dynamic, and eye-opening, so ripe with possibilities, necessary to the survival of the human race etc etc.

On Looking Back

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It has been my experience that retrospection makes one a particularly exacting critic. I don’t know if my experience can be so extrapolated, but I must wonder whether a writer can ever read their own work as finished, as being safe from the red pen? Even if it is but an unread blog post, we cannot but question the choices of our past selves.

                                      “Do I really use so many commas?”

                                                                         “Is this sentence actually four lines long?”

                   “Repeat after me: ‘Perhaps,’ ‘I suppose’ and ‘I believe’ are not punctuation.”

I am perhaps being particularly Irish in my rush to criticise myself, but we tend not to learn much sitting around complimenting ourselves. I am not however being overly-critical when I say that each post represents a failure in some way. Anything I have ever written, whether for school, college or my own enjoyment, begun with an idea or aim much purer than what eventually reached the page. I imagine it must be rare for a writer of any type to achieve the one-is-to-one transition, that perfect translation from immaterial thought to written word. Again I rely on the presumption of shared experience to fill in the gaps of my description, but I expect that I am not alone in this frustration. An idea always works best as an idea. When we endeavour to share it we often find ourselves left with what resembles a child’s drawing of the original.Untitled

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Before moving on to a commentary on individual posts I think it worthwhile to touch upon a meta intention, being what I wanted to accomplish at the blog’s inception and how I understand that goal at its end. I make such a distinction between beginnings and endings because I am ever wary of the fickle nature of memory, and that grand narratives have a tendency to be self-fulfilling whether in retrospect or otherwise. I also realise that such objectives quite often make a great ruckus in bashing at the door of an essay without ever making it through and onto the page.

In terms of style I have made my debt to Michel de Montaigne evident in the titling of of my posts. I had the pleasure of encountering Montaigne for the first time last year and realised that the father of essay-writing, from whose work we derive the very word essay itself, shared with me a propensity for the meander. For the tangent. For the long winding road to a point that is actually more of a question than a point… For starting out with great vigour on one path only to abandon it immediately upon happening upon something else. I have the dubious honour to have been titled with the nickname of ‘Ciarán-and-on-and-on-and-on’ whose meaning is surely self-explanatory and relates to a tendency that I blame strongly on my Dad’s influence. It has been a tendency I’ve had to work particularly hard to reign in in academic essays, to admittedly varying degrees of success. Freed from those rigours my first decision as to the blog was embrace this, to wander through a topic rather than making a beeline to the finish. To be happy in discussing something without feeling the need to offer a solution, a definite. Definites are a source of scepticism for me. As far as grand intentions go I think this about sums up my own ambitions. There were of course others which waxed and waned in influence as the months rolled on, but those can be addressed on a post to post basis.

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My first post, ‘On the Queen Bee and the Agency of Language,’ actually had its beginnings some few weeks prior to the MA. The original idea came from an encounter with a bee nuc in a garden centre. Neighbouring the nuc was a board which detailed the different castes of bee in the hive (soldier, drone, queen etc), along with how to spot them and most interestingly on how they communicate.  Much like when many humans are packed into a small, loud space, bees communicate through what is quite scientifically called the ‘waggle dance.’ The waggle-dance communicates issues such as threats to the hive, foraging reports, water sources and so on. Once you know what to look for, the passage of messages actually becomes quite visible.

This having sparked my interest in bees I did some general research on returning home (read: Wikipedia). Outside of the actual behaviour of bees themselves what struck me as particularly interesting was the extent to which they were anthropomorphised in melitological terminology, the specific instance which I fixated on of course being that of the Queen Bee. It made me aware of the limits of of language, and how simple connotation can so strongly shape our perception of reality. Thus began the first aspect of the article, wherein I sought to reveal the obvious if generally unnoticed artifice of our naming of the Queen Bee, and to then extrapolate the connotations from this small example to a wider field.

Imagine instead the ‘Queen Bee’ in metaphor – in how she might be imagined, in what her title connotes, in what she represents in ‘hive politics.’ … In our own society when we talk of ‘Queen Bees’ we are talking of women of power, women of agency. Remove ourselves from the world of metaphor however…The Queen Bee is a broodmare. She is a biological sperm bank, a prisoner of the infertile females who, in preparation for regicide, saturated her egg in royal jelly to force her sexual development.

Due to both laziness and a lack of direction, the essay lingered in stasis for a month or so until I was introduced to the theories of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, through which I found the framework and language to get to the core of what I had previously found myself only able to orbit. While I yet retain a certain scepticism towards Saussurian theory, or indeed any such overarching narrative, I saw in it a means to tie up at least  of the loose ends of my “bee essay.” In retrospect I am actually quite happy with how it turned out. While I admit some irregularity in tone, the Jägerbomb anecdote being a glaring one, I am content with it as a finished product. In this instance I am relatively happy to set the red pen aside.

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It sometimes happens in essay writing, or perhaps in any writing, that we happen across one idea in the exploration of another and end up completely changing our focus to this new, shinier idea. ‘On Dune and the Litany Against Fear‘ is the result of this, and particularly an instance of when the ghost of that previous essay remains just slightly too visible in the one which goes to (word) press. Dune, being a favourite novel of mine, had been something I wanted to write about for quite some time. The latter half of this essay represents the manner in which I wanted to use it, as a literary touchstone in a discussion on fear, the unknown, and the media machine.

Following the path one’s fear takes very often reveals one root cause – the unknown. In the above examples all connected fears can quite easily be traced back to this origin. It is the unmapped territory of human experience that rouses fear, not necessarily the objectively greatest threat.

The first half of this essay was the result of a lot of typing with no particular goal in mind. The rather overwritten first paragraph suggests the cause of this – my wish to just talk about Dune as a fan rather than a critic. I should of course have realised that I was combining two essays into one, playing the part of a surgeon of dubious credentials rather than an editor, suturing together ideas which had only a superficial relationship. As a critic I would have been better served by deprioritising ‘The Litany Against Fear,’ however as a blogger I am not so sure. Dune’s cult status netted it the highest readership of my posts, and more often than not the ‘Litany’ was the search term used to find the blog. Nevertheless, I still feel this post represents somewhat of a misspent opportunity. There is a better essay within ‘On Dune‘ that needed just a bit of tinkering to reveal.

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On the Nascent Web and its Uncertain Future‘ begins with the same type of mechanism I employed in ‘On the Queen Bee,’ a method which would eventually get its own essay in ‘On Light and Shade.’ Making a point, then making it again, then asking the reader to do more than read the point but to actually think about it. Then make that point with an anecdote. Rinse and repeat.

The Internet, as we would today recognise it, came into being in the mid 1980s, meaning that we have had more or less 30 years to test and toy with its capabilities. Relative to human history this span is but a heartbeat, a mere breath of existence. This fact warrants more than simply stating, but should bear conscious consideration.

It is clear at this point that the words of Saussure and other linguists who have argued the degeneration of language had begun to seep in. They still do, though I am at most a sceptical listener. For almost 1,500 words there really aren’t that many points made in ‘On the Nascent Web,’ a decision consciously made. My intention was to contextualise a handful of questions and theories with the everyday fantasy that is the Internet. A form of defamiliarisation, I suppose. In this I felt I succeeded, Dr. Murphy having helpfully provided the conceit which I latched on to, that of the Internet as the New World. At the time I remember having trouble trying to tie down the tone of the essay. What would be appropriate for the relatively serious topics of online freedom, the NSA and so on? While I didn’t then think that I had quite found the correct register, in retrospect I’m happy with the article that resulted. I remain particularly happy with my closing metaphor:

As ever happens when we move from the world of rhetoric to reality both ideologies must be grounded and in the impact combined. The chimera that shall emerge from this will doubtlessly prove a shapechanger, without static form or character. It will, I am sure, prove an interesting study.

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‘On Light and Shade’ proved one of my most difficult pieces to write, my opinions on the topic itself proving particularly mercurial. In my initial imagining of this article it was to have a much more forceful voice. This was in reaction to the mode of publication itself – the blog. There are two ways of having a question answered on the internet. The first is simply asking and hoping that some kind soul will spare a few minutes to type out a response. The far more efficient is to make decisive and contentious claims about the topic, feigning a great authority on the manner while making it clear that you are essentially clueless. There is no more tempting bait than ignorance with a loud voice. ‘On Light and Shade’ was initially modelled on such an approach, though obviously not to such a level. This is not of course a practice unheard of in literary criticism. Critics such as Barthes, Cixous and Jameson engaged in similarly inflammatory grand statements, lighting the signal fires of a new idea by committing arson on the accepted. The intention was simply to initiate a dialogue with the readers that were popping up on my statistics page but not in the comments.

The first draft of ‘On Light and Shade’ was notably more critical of Virginia Woolf. It also featured an extended piece on how books are simply a part of the entertainment industry and need to stop being looked at as “semi-spiritual manifestations.” I changed my tack for two reasons. With Woolf, while I was never anywhere near approaching negative as to her work, I felt my initial criticism was simply a dressed-up point of interest. I was also reading Woolf and writing on her during the composition of this piece, and becoming increasingly familiar and therefore admiring of her style. The “criticism” I eventually offered was much more in line of my thinking than that of my first draft. Secondly, it just isn’t in my nature to make grand statements that I could as easily argue against as for. Or at least not to put such down in writing, that is. If I wanted to chase views or comments then there was other ways to do so without compromising on my actual opinions.

The article that resulted was therefore different to the one that I had originally sat down to write. As in ‘On Dune,’ there are still traces of the old intention in ‘On Light and Shade’s’ organisation. The topic itself also proved to be a much greater area than I had originally envisaged; it proved impossible to contain everything I had to say in so short a piece. I contented myself therefore in simply touching upon a few areas which had interested me: the music industry, Woolf herself, genre, marketing, and so on.

My trouble with endings is quite visible in ‘On Light and Shade.’ I don’t think I am being self-deprecating in portraying a sense of “that’s good enough” as the deciding factor. In this case I had no grand statement to make, no point I was trying to prove. I was simply asking questions, pointing to interesting phenomena. How does one tack an ending to that style of article? While I don’t think that a better ending was beyond me, my own laziness again playing a key role, it is definitely an area that I’ve struggled with. Endings are terribly important. As discussed in the article itself, they decide a lot of how we organise or understand a piece of writing as a whole. If I was to stick to my guns I should have embraced the wandering ending, and refused to give a sense of “tying up.” As it is I insisted upon making a statement which had no particular worth other than signalling that the reading was at an end.

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‘On Academic English’ is perhaps my most confused piece, perhaps owing to the fact that it was a topic that was both long brewing and which has continued to brew. It is clear that I had far more to say than what I ended up saying, and I would have been better advised to have picked just one aspect of the topic and deal with it more fully. Once I started writing however the floodgates opened, the relatively jumbled two-thousand words which made the cut actually representing a much pruned version. I consider this piece to be my most important however, at least for myself as an academic and writer. If I am not already there then I am fast approaching the point where I am no longer writing for tutors or lecturers but for myself, as an academic with a valid perspective on my chosen field. Writing ‘On Academic English’ made me realise more than ever the misgivings I have about my own writing style and perhaps with academia as a whole. What these exact misgivings are I’m not sure, being a topic I change my mind on practically every time I sit down to write, or indeed to read what I have already written. That I, again, only touched upon certain aspects of this topic, and asked more questions than I answered, is indicative of this. Being at a point in my life where I am considering a future in academia one would think that I could answer at least a few of them.

Speaking of conclusions, I didn’t really come to any. Perhaps playing editor to one’s self is comparable to criticising one’s own child – It’s difficult to know where to even start.

‘On Academic English’ is confused because it reflects its author. It is illustrative of my concerns moreso than my opinions, the latter failing to yet assume a definite shape. As an exercise however it has proven of great help, and it certainly represents a topic that I will return to, perhaps with a clearer mind and a more definite direction.

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“Mr Jackson I’m aware of your reasoning. We received the vision diary and scrapbook you sent us. We just wanted to air concerns that  this decision might make it seem that we are, well lets say … ‘abusing’ a beloved franchise for financial gain..?”

“With all due respect Mr. Executive, how could anyone believe the film industry to be capable of so heinous a crime?”

(Found transcript of real conversation that really happened probably.)

The final post of my blog, or at least in its capacity as a graded exercise, is ‘On Adaptation and Paranoiac Readings.’ The form of ‘On Adaptation’, its satiric start which moves into critical analysis, was a second stab at the ‘lost’ intention behind ‘On Light and Shade.’ It occurred to me that with the unlimited entertainment at the disposal of anyone who, for whatever reason, stumbled across a short article on the dangers of teleology and paranoia in literary analysis, what could possibly entice them to stop and actually read it? I decided that my humour and ability to construct realistic dialogue would surely do the trick, and was suitably reward with my drastically least-viewed and interacted with post to date. Nevertheless, I actually found a tone that I was happy with, and a form that, with tinkering, could work. The difference between a blog and an academic essay, which had been slowly revealing itself, became most apparent here, where I tried to do something “different.” At the level at which I have written academic essays I have been writing for one person, that being the lecturer or tutor assigned to grade it. Even beyond this level academia is still orientated towards a very specific audience. A blog on the other hand is casting a much wider net but into an infinite ocean. Competing in the rich but much trawled waters (Buzzfeed and co.) of blogging didn’t fit into the academic strain the blog was meant to maintain. At the same time, the exercise as a whole was made redundant if you and your lecturer remained your only readers. Here I found a style which, with some self-promoting, I felt could work. If you are to be niche then you might as well be purposefully so.

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In this review of my own blog, while I did of course find plenty to criticise, I also found plenty to be proud of. While I never achieved the mythical ‘Intention’ I saw at least its outline, which often pointed to the reasons why it perhaps failed to fully materialise. In going back over the work of the last few months I do believe that I saw a real progression, and a growing willingness to shake off the safer forms which I had clung to and to experiment more and more with my own voice, the perennial victim of the backspace key. What this ‘voice’ is exactly is yet unknown to me. It hardly exists in some immutable form – even this recap has changed in character with every revision, and this was written over a much shorter period of time. This section was once the introduction, you know. If I didn’t get closer to this ephemeral voice then perhaps it is fair to say that I experimented with voice, that I tried on a number of similar but different styles. Perhaps ‘voice’ then is a closer to a fashion than something to be found. I can only imagine that it would be terribly dull to write in the same style for the rest of one’s life.White_430113_i0[1]

This is not a finishing statement. It just signals that the reading is over. Thank you reader, but our princess is another castle.divider-11-e1289889594630[1]

On Adaptation and Paranoiac Readings

On the 4th of March I attended a talk given by UCC's Dr. Graham Allen entitled
‘The Unempty Wasps’ Nest and Kubrick’s The Shining: Rethinking Adaptation.'
In the course of this he touched on the issue of a "paranoiac reading," an
understanding of a text whereby nothing in the creative process is left to 
chance. I want to pick up here on a number of Dr. Allen's points, specifically 
in relation the recent Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies.

“Mr Jackson, I’ve been going through the script for the planned Hobbit films and there are a number decisions that puzzle me. I mean, just off the bat, is it really necessary to split the movie into three installments? This could severely strain plot of the novel, and ..”

“Look, I’ve been expecting some criticism, and I know there are some decisions which seem unusual but let me explain. No, three movies aren’t necessary to tell Tolkien’s story. But it is necessary for my vision of it. Three is in important number for a book so heavily rooted in mythology you know. I am an auteur goddammit. I’m not going to just throw the book at the screen and call it a day. I’m..”

Peter, his face reddened, pauses for a moment and reflects. He continues.

“I intend, Mr. Executive, to weave the very essence of the Tolkien mythos into this vision. There isn’t a blade of grass in these films that I won’t have personally chosen for this purpose. I’m not allowing anyone to just dip into this world only to emerge two hours later with a popcorn bucket as empty as their minds. I’m not peddling a plot here, I’m… I’m creating. Crating the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of Middle-Earth… yes, each film incapable of meaning anything by itself, but together more than sum of its parts. You ever see a director agonising over the exact second the audience has should be kept in suspense? I’m holding them hostage for two years baby. I’m.. “

“Mr Jackson I’m aware of your reasoning. We received the vision diary and scrapbook you sent us. We just wanted to air concerns that  this decision might make it seem that we are, well lets say … ‘abusing’ a beloved franchise for financial gain..?”

“With all due respect Mr. Executive, how could anyone believe the film industry to be capable of so heinous a crime?”

(Found transcript of real conversation that really happened probably.)

——

Smaug

Smaug and Bilbo as imagined by Justin Gerrard.

——

There is a notable tendency for critics to fall into the paranoic trap in analysing book to film adaptations. Because there is already a blueprint in place as to how that story is told it becomes easy to assume that every decision made was made with the intent to tell this story, to impart a particular understanding or vision of the original. Even when we are aware of how unreasonable this assumption is, the decision as to where the line should be drawn remains a difficult one. With so many artists involved in the making of the film, from the actors to the casting agent, from set-designers to director, it becomes nigh impossible to trace each and every decision to the idea behind it. That is not to say that this a problem unique to film analysis, however it certainly make this problem more visible. In relation to The Hobbit movies, as revelatory as the conversation above is, we still must suspect monetary concerns to have had a significant hand in shaping the resultant trilogy. Outside of the splitting of the film itself we can identify a host of artistic ‘directions’ which would otherwise be quite confusing. The baffling love triangle introduced between Tauriel, Legolas and Kili for example, or the very strange final fight-scene between Thorin and Azog, which has been noted as more characteristic of a video game than of a movie. The love triangle in particular reeks of the Hollywood ideal of a ‘story that sells’, a particularly nauseating testament as to how dated this particular condescension is. Regarding the latter point it is worth noting that while there was no Hobbit video game released for The Battle of the Five Armies, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was released just a month beforehand. While not based around the events of The Hobbit, we might still suspect this to have played a role in Jackson’s unusual choreographing of this scene. The ‘trap’ of the paranoiac reading is that it is teleological. It assumes that every aspect of the text is for something, that it was specifically placed there for such an effect. I have realistically done no different in my short analysis above, other than shifting my focus to events outside of rather than inside the film. There is of course a possibility that the splitting of The Hobbit into three films did indeed constitute an artistic direction. Perhaps it was simply a personal indulgence on Jackson’s behalf, a desire to spend more time in Middle-earth. There is likewise a possibility that the love-triangle was used as a device not to appeal to some mythical ‘lowest common denominator’, but rather to explore more fully the personalities of the dwarves, and to introduce a woman to the notably all-masculine tale of the original. In actuality all these reasons, and many others, conspired together to create The Hobbit. While I certainly find the financial arguments to be more convincing, to flatly deny that other concerns could have had any influence on such decisions would be a blinkered approach. The mono-causal explanation is always an idiotic one, a truth not confined to literary analysis.

On Sneaking into Academia (Mini-Conference Reflection)

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Photo credit to Jane Farrell

durden face

Original creator unknown. Modified by author.

6 minutes and 40 seconds in front of a podium and suddenly it’s over. The density of that 400 seconds varies of course from speaker to speaker, but we were all aware that at a certain point one reaches a critical mass of information. Saturation point – when a solution of a substance can dissolve no more of that substance, and additional amounts of it will appear as a separate phase. When your tea rejects any extra sugar and you are consigned to unpleasant swirling grains. When information  is forced upon on audience at a speed denying both the acts of savouring and digesting.

I spoke on Fight Club, drawing in part on the novel but focusing mainly on David Fincher’s film adaptation. Honestly assessing myself, I did perhaps press past the saturation point of my audience, a reflection on myself of course rather than them. I had a relatively tight argument which required a certain amount of time to fulfill. That time did not allow for any prevaricating, word-searching, tongue-tip trawling or hand gesturing, so I read mostly from a script. My plan was to have learned this off, to have transfigured my notes into cue cards. Alas –

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Account not for severe man-flu

(Robert Burns, To a Mouse, Modernised by author)

Jack Face

Original creator unknown. Modified by author.

Despite this, I finished both my presentation and subsequent questions feeling satisfied in my knowledge of the topic and my ability to communicate it. The core of my presentation revolved around Fight Club’s post-modernist form. I aimed to demonstrate the manner in which Fincher was able to saturate the film with Jack’s ‘Tyler Durden delusion’, to a point where it seeped into the movie’s very framework. I drew attention to Fight Club’s inserted frames, its constant self-reference, and Durden’s invasive personality as indicative of this. As a cult classic Fight Club represented a double-edged sword for a conference such as this one. The advantage was that most of the audience would have seen the film, or at least have been aware of it. I would not therefore have to waste too much of my time on the plot, and could count on my thesis being quite transparent. The danger was that someone would take umbrage to my interpretation, would appear with an encyclopedic knowledge of the film and counter everything I had said. This person either did not appear or did not raise their hand, so all in all a successful gamble.

While the Textualities conference by no means represented my first presentation it was certainly the first time that I presented as an academic rather than a student. At no point did it feel it was a ‘day of examination,’ though in reality I knew we were being graded for our efforts. Even when staff were posing questions to the various presenters I felt that their interest in their topic was genuine – an exploration, on their part, rather than a needling. This of course was due in part to the atmosphere that we – in our capacity as organisers, presenters, and audience – created. I have to applaud my fellow M.A.s on this point. Whether introducing their fellows or posing questions to them, in their work before the day or the professionalism on it, it was truly an experience of coming together, in academic curiosity, interest and support.

On Academic English

We, however, for our part, are convinced that the chief merit of language is clearness, and we know that nothing detracts so much from this as do unfamiliar terms.

(Galen, On the Natural Faculties, 3)

———————————————————-

Over the past three and a half years of college I have found myself subjected to a number of academics who have severely tested and often beaten any will I had to read them. Among these men and women were those considered the foremost experts in their field, academics who had shaken the very foundations of their disciplines and breathed new life into topics once considered finished. They bored me not because of their subject matters, which were very often of great interest, but because of their actual writing. They were dull. Terribly dull.

If such a viewpoint started with my own inexperience with such texts it did not end there. I understand now that there is a significant difference, for example, between a historian writing for historians and one writing for the general public. It would be as exasperating for an essay destined for an academic journal to insist on explaining scholarly jargon as it would be for one destined for a newspaper to neglect to do so. There is a significant learning curve when it comes to making such a transition, but that transition is no small milestone in one’s academic career. This frustration of mine lasted beyond my making this transition.

A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning shows that he has no distinct idea, no neatness of speech. He is like a bad marksman, who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful of stones, gravel, sand, and all, and throws at it, thinking that in that manner he may hit it.”

(Boswelliana, 255)

There is a certain strain of academic that clings to the belief that if a sentence is good then a paragraph is better. Brevity may be the soul of wit but it is at best a minor and maligned chakra of literary theory. We see the truth of this in the fact that some academics spend an awful lot of time arguing with each other about the meaning of another academic. Being invested in the discipline of English we imagine that clarity of meaning should be first in the professional’s toolkit? After several years of college-level English I have become increasingly familiar with such a style of writing. While I don’t mean to suggest that I have been solely or even primarily reading writers of the genus tedious tedious, the excesses of academic English have, at times, proven a very frustrating hurdle. Recently however it has struck me that, in my own writing, what I thought was the progress of several years of academia could simply be considered a barrier to entry to others. Or, more simply – dull. A certain amount of osmosis is unavoidable in the reading of any type of literature, and therefore while all the time believing at some level that such academics were often quite painfully long winded, was theirs also the style of the professional, and therefore to be emulated? Is it possible than instead of becoming a better writer I had just become a different one?

If I was to argue the case of any of my essays to a non-academic then I would certainly express myself very differently. This begs the question of whether the essays are complex not in idea or argument but simply in language. The necessity of any amount of academic jargon could perhaps be contested. I have yet to find an idea or theory in my own studies that would be beyond the understanding of a ‘lay-reader’, however the presentation of such concepts often puts them out of the reach of anyone who is not a specialist. When we look at the sciences there is a wealth of books aimed towards explaining the far more complex mechanics of the Universe to a non-academic audience. We must therefore wonder why literary theory hasn’t descended from the Ivory Tower to do the same?

At this point it may prove beneficial to move from speculation to practice. Below is quoted a (reduced) first paragraph from an essay I wrote just over a year ago on Tim O Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. As novels go Lake, while no Ulysses, is fairly complex, however there aren’t any aspects of it that should require a degree in English to understand. Briefly, it is about John Wade, an American politician, and his wife Kathy. After a failed political campaign they have both retreated to a cabin by a remote lake in northern Minnesota, where Kathy disappears, casting suspicion on John. The book is presented as being an actual biography written on the events, with sources from those close to the couple, however the author writes from the actual viewpoints of the Wades, muddling fact with fiction. While Kathy’s disappearance is never solved the author does offer speculations on what happened, including a scenario where she is brutally murdered by John.

From this point I intend to comment on writing of this essay, and debate the necessity of the language used. As an experiment I then intend to rewrite the same paragraph in a style specifically aimed towards brevity and complete clarity of meaning.

“Tim O’Brien works on a great number of levels in In the Lake of the Woods to create an intrinsically inconstant novel, a work whose notion of truth is inherently asymptotical. Though mystery itself constitutes its very core it is the book’s post-modernist form which most beleaguers those readers searching for a fixed narrative. It is essential therefore in any analysis of In the Lake of the Woods to give a degree of attention to this form. The novel we are reading is essentially metafictional, a pseudo-biographical narrative produced within the fictional world of Lake itself. The narrator, though bearing a resemblance to O’Brien, is not quite him. Likewise, the core story that he produces – the quasi-omniscient narration of the Wades’ final days in the cabin, the subsequent search for Kathy and the intimate exposé of John’s mental state – is not an account of the actual events but rather a literary reconstruction, ostensibly based on the interviews and research alluded to in the Evidence chapters. This fact is of crucial importance. […] When we extrapolate the author’s essential ignorance of the actual events the implications dissolve almost all touchstones of certainty in the novel. The realisation that the narration of John’s thoughts, motives and past are either complete fabrication or only loosely based on guesswork and secondary sources inverts how we must read the novel and proves any attempts to unravel its mysteries a fundamentally Sisyphean task…” (Kavanagh, Untitled and Unpublished Essay, 1)

As an academic essay, for a reader familiar with O’Brien, I don’t see too many flaws in the style of language that I have used. There is certainly a relative freedom when writing for an academic audience in being allowed to expect an automatic familiarity with certain terms. For example, the notion of truth being ‘inherently asymptotical’ is, I believe, a perfectly clear way to describe the reality of O’Brien’s novel. However, a reader outside of literary (or indeed mathematical) studies might find themselves quite immediately turned off the essay, or would at least find themselves briefly removed from its argument in having to look up the term ‘asymptotical.’ This dichotomy rings true throughout the paragraph – post-modernist, pseudo-biographical, quasi-omniscient, ‘touchstones of certainty’, Sisyphean task.. – all of these terms, while suitably expressing my own meaning, are, in a way, undemocratic. They render my argument somewhat inaccessible to anyone not immediately familiar with either the concepts or language of academic English. Even if assuming a familiarity with the novel itself, how then would I go about explaining it to a reader outside of the strange world of literary criticism? Below is my rewritten attempt to introduce the novel.

In the Lake of the Woods is a novel fundamentally geared towards uncertainty, whose very plot is denied to the reader, allowing them only scraps and speculations to piece together the story. Though Kathy’s disappearance is shrouded in real mystery, with no definite solution offered, it is Lake’s form which most frustrates our attempts to reconstruct the Wades and their final days in the Minnesotan cabin. An understanding of this form must therefore form a part of any discussion of the novel. In the Lake of the Woods is, in a manner of speaking, authored by two men – Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam vet who produced the actual novel, and a character who resides not in the real world but in that of Lake itself, an author who, despite some biographical similarities, is not O’Brien. This is an important distinction for us to make, for while O’Brien himself has a god’s knowledge of his own world and characters, (having created them) the author within the novel, the unnamed biographer/journalist, does not. The story that this fictional author manufactures – their final days in the cabin, the exploration of John’s PTSD, the final search for Kathy – is only a reconstruction, one dependent on the interviews and documents shown to us in the ‘Evidence’ chapters. The consequences of this fact, that the internal author is as ignorant of the actual events as we are, results in a novel without a fixed narrative, one whose true plot can never possibly be worked out.

As the author of both pieces it proves difficult for me to decide on which is better. While to me the first is a better read, the second is undoubtedly clearer in meaning and language. Interestingly, abandoning the academic terminology of the first did not result in a longer introduction, which perhaps highlights my weakness for repetition. It is impossible of course to decide at what point one should draw the line in terms of vocabulary. Simplifying your speech doesn’t equate with ‘dumbing down’ your message, but it might contribute towards a diminishing vocabulary. No one feels the need to hold a conversation with a Thesaurus, but that hardly creates a desideratum to fling it from the fenestella. That is a balance that every author must find for themselves.

The key difference, I suppose, is suitability. Functionally both pieces perform the same, but they do so for different audiences. As previously mentioned, there is a difference in writing for academic and non-academic audiences, but does it go beyond a freedom to show off one’s fancy book-learnin’? Perhaps this comparison draws attention to the deficiencies of my ‘academic’ English rather than the style of writing as a whole. The chief function of academic terminology should be to avoid the explanation and repetition of concepts which are already known to the audience, however my introductions are almost identical in length. Then again, I have workshopped a very small extract, making it difficult to extrapolate too many conclusions. Speaking of conclusions, I didn’t really come to any. Perhaps playing editor to one’s self is comparable to criticising one’s own child – It’s difficult to know where to even start. I certainly have a habit of repeating my points ad nauseum, but I put that down to not trusting the reader, a judgement I base on my own short attention span. Additionally, I likely have more than a slight inclination to ‘dress up’ my ideas in clever-sounding terms, where I should perhaps be happier to let my logic do the talking. There is always of course the possibility that I am in fact right in every decision I make, and it’s simply you philistines dragging me down.

Galen, On the Natural Faculties, Trans. Arthur John Brock. Ed. E.Capps, T.Page and W. Rouse. London: William Heineman, 1916.

Charles Rogers, Boswelliana. London: Grampian Club, 1854.

Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods. London: Flamingo, 1995.

On Light and Shade

“All of this danced up and down, like a company of gnats,

each separate, but all marvelously controlled in an invisible elastic net –

danced up and down in Lily’s mind, in and about the branches of the pear tree,

where still hung in effigy the scrubbed kitchen table,

symbol of her profound respect for Mr. Ramsay’s mind,

until her thought which had spun quicker and quicker exploded of its own intensity;

she felt released”

(To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, pg. 40-41. Lineation is here altered.)¹

———————-

Above is an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, it’s form changed from its original prose to something more closely resembling lyric poetry. While the borders which define a work –  as a piece of poetry, or prose, or academia – are more often blurred than clear, they are not wholly arbitrary, for they shape our expectations and consumption of the piece. We are predisposed to read a poem more than once, and expect to find its meaning over several readings rather than in the first. While the same is undoubtedly true of a book it is far less feasible for the general reader to give as much attention to every line of of a 500 page novel as to a page long poem. The above tract is but a few short lines in a novel written in entirely the same style –  beautiful, profound but weighty. How we package our message is therefore important, and wrapped up in issues of what I here refer to as light and shade.

It is difficult to appreciate songs that are all crescendo, and likewise songs that have none. As the world of profit-margins and marketability becomes increasingly tied up with that of music, this is a fact which should prove particularly recognisable (hence the era of the chorus). In a similar vein, we find that the novel which kills off one hundred characters finds it increasingly difficult to make us care about the one hundred and first. In visual arts the image which casts one main figure to the foreground is eminently preferable as to the communicating of an idea. These are issues of emphasis and obfuscation. Light and shade. We choose what we wish to appear in the focus at the expense of its blurred surroundings.

Simple, effective. One figure. One message.  No information. ²

This is a truth which extends far beyond the world of art. Familiarity makes a mundanity of the extraordinary. We can never experience the world objectively – we are bound the relative.

Novels do not exist in any transcendent artistic dimension. They exist physically, as words on a page which are read in innumerable different ways by innumerable different types of people. They are read in well-thumbed paperbacks, all in one sitting, every word savoured as by a gourmand returning to his favourite dish, exactly as the artist intended. They are read in many sittings by bored eyes which flick restlessly from page to page, uncaring of the particularly lyrical turn which that final paragraph ended in, barely being skimmed because this particular book is being read for a class or some other obligation, not for pleasure. Most of us read somewhere between these two examples, shifting closer to one or the other depending on a variety of factors. This is a truth which should be obvious to us, but it nevertheless warrants stating. We bring our own experiences to the world of art. Our ability to empathise, our particular concerns, our gender, nationality, identity and so on ad nauseum. The use of light and shade therefore assumes a position of paramount importance in the writer’s repertoire. It enables them to put on a pedestal that they wish emphasised, the idea or image they wish to be inescapable. It likewise enables them obfuscate that whose mechanics they would prefer to remain hidden. The brightest lights cast the deepest shadows, as true in the literary world as the physical.

To the Lighthouse is a beautifully lyrical novel that almost struggles under the weight of Woolf’s insights and profundity. I repeat this final point again as while the novel is a masterpiece and undoubtedly deserving of its critical acclaim, it seems to me that it does not find (or perhaps does not seek) a balance of light and shade. Just as the one hundred and first character to be killed off will likely not rouse the emotion of the first, so too will the hundred and first epiphany fail to excite the attention of its predecessors. Woolf is writer of light moreso than one of shade. This is not meant as a criticism, perhaps closer to a point of interest. Woolf does not labour to create a nail-biting page turner, which is clear by her attitude to plot, which she seems to believe is unnecessary. This is a tradeoff that Woolf has made. She sacrifices those aspects of writing conducive to plot and readability to enable her experiments in narrative voice, interior monologue and so on. Other Modernists such as Joyce, Eliot and Pound operate on a similar level. Their better-selling contemporaries such as Fitzgerald and Hemmingway work within the same paradigm but at at the opposite side. Their novels are easily accessible, however those ‘epiphany moments’, so blatant in Woolf, are found far deeper in the text, on the allegorical and connotative levels. Hemmingway refers to this style as iceberg theory, where only a small portion of the story is actually ‘told’, the focus being on what is omitted rather than that which is printed.³ What occurs between the lines is considered more important than the lines themselves.

The attention of a reader waxes and wanes in patterns that are nigh on indiscernible. The first line and the last lines are certainly important, our portals into and out of the world of the novel. Without the use of light and shade, what is eye-opening on the first page becomes expected by the hundredth, and boring by the last. But beyond this, how does the writer structure their work? More importantly, should the reader even figure in this decision? Does this quasi-scientific approach to writing taint the artistic world, or does it make it more accessible? A great number of people would doubtless consider both ends to be the same, however I disagree. Hemingway is no better than Woolf for being accessible, while Woolf is no more profound than Hemmingway for not being so. It would not do to have a world of Hemmingways however, no more than it would have a world of Woolfs. While I do not consider it to be against some ephemeral artistic spirit to consider the realities of the reader, the development of one’s own style, one’s own balance, should, I believe, be of emphatically greater importance.

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First line from W. Gibson’s Neuromancer. Image is particularly memorable not least because of it’s position within the novel.⁴ (9)

1) Woolf, Virginia, To The Lighthouse. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

2) Shepard Fairey, Barack Obama “Hope” Poster. 2008.

3) Hemmingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. London: Arrow, 1994.

4) Gibson, William, Neuromancer. London: Harper Collins, 1995.

Writing the Halo: Narrative Voice and Unity in Virginia Woolf

‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’

(Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ 160).

The difference between gig lamps and halos is the difference in how life is recorded, whether by memory or storyteller, and how life is experienced. While any novel will inevitably illuminate its narrative with both, the material of life itself has traditionally been much more heavily dealt with by the light of the gig lamp. The soft luminescence of the halo, the experiential recording of life, is the form advocated by Woolf, a form which she argues is able to capture the essence of life in a manner no longer possible by the ‘ill-fitting vestments’ of traditional English literature. Writers in this tradition, such as Bennett and Gladsworthy, she labels materialists for what she saw as their concern with the body over the spirit. They make ‘the trivial and the transitory appear the true and enduring.’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 159-160) Woolf instead bids us to examine ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms… Let us record the atoms’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 161). It is this experience of life that Woolf endeavours to recreate in her fiction. Metaphor, of course, comes cleaner and easier than practice, and Woolf’s method of “recording the atoms” constitutes a philosophy that would evolve significantly over the span of her career. The development of one particularly interesting facet of Woolf’s approach to “writing the halo” will be the focus of this study – the quite unique melding of her own aesthetic and narrative consciousness with the moment by moment experiences of her characters. This essay will examine this particular aspect of Woolf in three of her novels: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. Specifically, it will examine the very distinct impact this has on the conception of life which she portrays in her fiction, and how this vision operates across her works.

Woolf was of course not just a prolific writer of fiction, but also a prolific critic of fiction. Between her diaries, reviews and correspondences both personal and official, we are afforded a generous awareness of her philosophy of writing. While later critics have attempted to look for the ‘gig lamps’ of her ideology, it is clear that Woolf’s was an ever evolving and even mercurial one. For example, in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’ she criticises the artifice of the “materialist” conception of life, characterising such writers as binding their genius to forms which life has long since ceased to inhabit. (159) She additionally calls for the modern author to convey the ‘varying, unknown spirit … with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible,’ – that is to detach themselves from their narratives. (160) These however cannot be seen to be criticisms which her own work can escape, or ones they even seek to escape. Even if we accept Woolf’s criticism of the “materialist” narrative as artifice, (and her opinions thereon do not seem so straight-forward) unlike the scientist the writer does not have the benefit of the hermetic detector to record the atoms of human experience. There is no escaping the artifice of art in this endeavour. Likewise, Woolf is by no means a disinterested spectator of her own works. While her moments as omnipotent narrator are rare she yet presses a very distinct personal direction upon her narrative. In the ivory tower of literary jargon some parties have argued that this disqualifies her from being deemed a stream of consciousness writer. Though definitions of what a stream of consciousness writer actually entails can differ quite widely, it is Woolf’s mediation of her characters thoughts, and the translating of them from a more realistic low English to her own highly poetic and self-consciously aesthetic prose which sets her so apart. (Naremore 63-67) While it is not within the scope of this essay to give anything more than a passing reference to a debate over academic terminology, the general argument is that Woolf typically writes in a style that resembles not so much the actual moment by moment impressions of the characters themselves, but rather those thoughts and experiences mediated through her voice and, importantly, through her quite unique artistic vision. Consider, as example, the following passage from Mrs. Dalloway:

‘Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. “Heavens, the front-door bell!” exclaimed Clarissa.’ (Mrs. Dalloway 32)

It is clear that writing such as this extends beyond the sensory impressions and fragments of thought which we might expect from Woolf’s call to ‘record the atoms as they fall.’ It forms an impression which surpasses the moment by moment experience of Clarissa to become something half lodged in the realm of the aesthetic, and half in the experiential. We suspect that it brings us closer, emotionally and empathetically, to Clarissa’s experience than a more realistic replica of each ‘score upon [her] consciousness’ would. (‘Modern Fiction’ 161) Though Woolf does not bind herself to one particular style it is understandable as to why her prose would not be considered by some as stream of consciousness. The debate on such matters is not what is important here but rather the effect. Woolf weds herself – her style, aesthetic, poetry – to the moment by moment experiences of her characters. While it is inevitable in the flowing from thought to ink that writing will take, at some level, the character of its author, Woolf’s prose achieves something quite different. Woolf acts almost as a guide through the consciousness of her characters, colouring what one witnesses there with her own impressionist aesthetic. She infuses the world with herself.

Auerbach, in an extended analysis of To the Lighthouse’s “Brown Stocking” scene, identifies Woolf’s speaker not as a ‘narrator of objective facts,’ but a multipersonal collection of dramatis personae , capable of penetrating the depths of the human soul, capable too of knowing something about it, but not of attaining the clarity as to what is in process there…’ (Auerbach 531-532) This manner of representing life is highly charged with one strain of the modernist agenda, that being the epistemological challenge against knowing. We are not given access to the true Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay. We see them as others see them, as they are seen by themselves, in how they are reflected in the world around them. They are revealed to us as mutable, contradictory minds, as living characters, the possibility of which Woolf claims escapes from the novels such as those of Bennett, where ‘there is not so much as a draught between the frames of the window, or a crack in the boards.’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 158-9) ‘It is […] an age of fragments,’ Woolf claims in her 1923 essay ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary,’ (156) the expression of which we best see in her novel of almost twenty years subsequent, Between the Acts. The final scene of the village play has the cast, each bearing something reflective, create a fragmented looking glass for their audience, in parody of the realist claim to hold a mirror up to nature.

Out they leapt, jerked, skipped. Flashing, dazzling, dancing, jumping. Now old Bart … he was caught. Now Manresa. Here a nose … There a skirt … Then trousers only … Now perhaps a face…. Ourselves? But that’s cruel. To snap us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume … And only, too, in parts…. That’s what’s so distorting and upsetting and utterly unfair. (132)

Naremore notes that nowhere in her previous works does the ellipses appear more often, ‘as if’, he extrapolates, ‘to emphasise the tenuous and fragmentary quality of life.’ (223) Mr. Streatfield, in his attempt to bring order to the disconcerted audience’s understanding of the play, turns to his faith for some organising principle; ‘May we not hold that there is a spirit that inspires, pervades […] Scraps, orts and fragments! Surely, we should unite?’ (138) The majority of the crowd regard his efforts more with amusement than solemnity. Here we see in Woolf one of those hallmark modernist “family resemblances;” a world is believed to be fragmented and disjointed, and is so mirrored in a text of the same character, both of which supposedly beyond the unifying principle craved by man. That does not of course stop critics for looking for some organising principle (nor, puzzlingly, some authors from providing them). Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Wasteland are both interesting examples of this phenomenon. Eliot lauds Joyce mythic method as ‘giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,’ (130) generally regarded as speaking concurrently of his own experiments with that method. Both of course are famed for their baffling disregard of conventional form and style, and for the fragmented and even disintegrating society they illustrate. This same dichotomy is also seen in Woolf. Despite her chaotic and mercurial illustration of thought and emotion, and the almost perennial isolation that her characters are defined by, there is yet a pervading preoccupation with unity, order and even unanimity. Take for example the following scene from Mrs. Dalloway:

Clarissa had a theory in those days… It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. (125)

Clarissa is expressing the human condition that Woolf echoes in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ – the belief that one is separate and unique and individual while simultaneously formed and therefore part of a wider web of people and place. ‘The mind’, Woolf reflects, ‘is certainly a very mysterious organ … It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself apart from them … Or it can think with other people spontaneously as … in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.’ (145-6) A similar sentiment is again puzzled over by Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, who considers it strange that old acquaintances of theirs, the Mannings, ‘had been capable of going on living all these years when she had not thought of them more than once all that time,’ noting the idea that they may also not have thought of her as being ‘strange and distasteful.’ (133) There is a yearning, in both the characters and, importantly, the medium through which they are voiced, to resonate with their surroundings, to glimpse some latent, fundamental unifying force.

This hunger for unity, for the revelation of some underlying order or harmony, is critical to understanding Woolf’s portrayal of life. It separates Woolf’s method of writing from Joyce’s, which she perhaps unfairly characterised as being defined by the egoism (and lewdness) of a self-taught underbred workingman. (The Diary of Virginia Woolf 2:188-9) Woolf reacts to Joyce like this for a number of reasons. On the literary level she believes that he, like the materialists, attempts to capture life within the human consciousness at the expense of the outside world. (Naremore, 75) Her ‘luminous halo’ however extends beyond the consciousness of the individual and indeed beyond the consciousness of the mere human. The Woolfian narrator could perhaps be understood as some manner of genius loci, an omnipresent (if not omniscient) speaker bound to a locationLondon, the Isle of Sky, Pointz Hall – capable of flitting from character to character, following the trails of memory and association, and, as Auerbach suggests, capable of understanding something of the soul if not all its workings. It is a self-consciously artistic spirit, not only in voice but in understanding.

McLaurin relates Woolf”s style to that of a French group of writers, the Unanimists, who based their work on the ‘psychological phenomenon of group consciousness and collective emotion,’ and the artists ability to merge with this transcendent consciousness. (Encylopedia Britannica, “Unanimism”) The Bloomsbury group of which Woolf was a member shared an interest in the groupmind with the Unanimists, and indeed connections between her work and theirs was made by two of her prominent early reviewers, E.M. Forster and Conrad Aiken. (McLaurin, 115-6) The dinner scene in To the Lighthouse is highly illustrative of this philosophy. The gong serves to immediately break the characters from their private reveries, summoning them to dinner. Mrs. Ramsay however must serve to animate the group, noting that initially ‘Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.’ (126) When the dinner is unified it is to negative effects however, a group feeling that something is missing; ‘ Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr. Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs Ramsay felt that something was lacking…’ (141-2) The same scene is repeated in Between the Acts; ‘[Giles] said (without words) “I’m damnably unhappy.” “So am I,” Dodge echoed. “And I too,” Isa thought.’ (126) In Mrs. Dalloway the classic example of this is that of sky-writing scene, which Woolf’s later comments in ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ quoted above, are I believe deliberately reminiscent of. The London crowd are briefly united from their usual, fragmented thoughts as they stare in unison at the puzzle being traced out above them. The narrative voice mirrors this as it flits between voices, representing not what was actually written in the sky but rather a conglomerate of understandings. A more uncanny example of the groupmind is in the double relationship of Clarissa and Septimus. Fleishman draws attention to Septimus’ adoption of Clarissa’s ‘Fear no more’ leitmotif before his suicide. (181) Clarissa herself later senses this somehow, ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him— the young man who had killed himself.’ (153) Here the narrating voice is also an animating one, as if its desire for aesthetic harmony is exerting a pressure on the physical world to conform with such a vision.

The uncanny power of the narrator to shape the physical world surfaces most blatantly in Between the Acts, tied up as it is with the artist figure (often read as a Woolf surrogate) of Miss La Trobe. McLaurin draws a connection between La Trobe and the animator figure of the unanimists, noting that a village and the audience of a play are two of Romain’s classic examples of potential ‘unanimes.’ (118) La Trobe is indeed obsessed with the ability of her art to unite and draw together, thinking of herself as ‘one who seethes wandering bodies and floating voices in a cauldron, and makes rise up from its amorphous mass a recreated world.’ (111) From the beginning however her play is beset by poor actors, limited equipment and inclement conditions which prevent much of it from being heard by the audience in more than orts and fragments. In a manner quite surreal however we witness nature itself bowing to her artistic demands. Three times nature intervenes to save the play, from the bellowing of cows to a sudden, much needed shower of rain, falling as if to conform to La Trobe’s wish to ‘douche [the audience] in present-time reality.’ (129) Elsewhere too we witness the physical interferences of some manner of artistic spirit. Giles encounter with the ‘monstrous inversion’, a snake choking on a frog, belongs more to the world of symbolism than reality, while the already mentioned uncanny echoing of Giles, Isa and Dodge’s thoughts verges on the telepathic. Across the three novels the Woolfian voice, though light-touched, is also a Woolfian force. The novels are imbued with a manner of self-awareness, a barely perceptible drive towards aesthetic harmony.

The drive towards revealing some fundamental impulse towards unity is present throughout the three novels discussed, far beyond the few examples given in this essay. This drive must be placed in context, however, if it is illustrate the conception of life Woolf portrays. Woolf’s characters are ever grasping for something greater than the individual. They are also ever falling short of this goal. Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner serves to unite her guests in a feeling of ‘something lacking.’ Miss La Trobe’s play achieves a similar result. There is no revelation, no discovery of happiness which lasts longer than a few lines. Clarissa and Peter remain the same people at the end of the day as they are at the start. The relationships which brew in the first section of To the Lighthouse are unfulfilled, in the case of Lily Briscoe and Mr. Bankes, and unfulfilling in the case of the Rayleys. The ills and insecurities of Mr. Ramsay and Lily likewise change little with the passage of time. As Malcolm Cowley notes in his review of Between the Acts, ‘[The pageant] is brilliantly written, and while it lasts it holds the audience together, after a fashion. When it ends the spectators and the actors disperse to their homes […] A summer day has passed and much has been revealed, but nothing has been changed.” (23-4) Is Woolf’s vision then an unfulfilled one? In explaining the stymieing of this vision it may be tempting to look to Woolf’s own character for the cause. Her own depression, especially at the time of her writing Between the Acts, has been the focus of many critics of her work. Such a theory is short-sighted however and even lazy. Woolf expresses a wish to be an author of life, an author of atoms and halos. We cannot therefore expect her to provide a fairy tale ending, a sudden revelation which leads to a lifetime of happiness. The philosophy of unity, of a primal impellation towards harmony, is unfulfilled. Her philosophy of art however, wrapped up in this quasi-unanimism, is not. It is through art that Woolf’s characters are stirred to be part of something greater, that they, even if but for a moment, feel fulfilled. Whether the aesthetic act is in the form of a party or a painting, a play or a piece of music, it is through it that Woolf’s characters find the means to apprehend the underlying order of life, temporarily though it may be. Clarissa finds this in her party, in her instinctive ability to bring people together. Miss La Trobe, though an emotional wreck, finds her moment of triumph in her play. Her audience, brought together in confusion and under the impetus of the familiar tune of the gramophone, ‘Like quicksilver sliding, filings magnetized […] they crashed; solved; united.’ (135) Lily, though troubled in reproducing her vision, ‘could see it all so clearly, so commandingly’ when at her painting. (32) Furthermore, while time does not grant the revelation that she so eagerly sought in her younger years, it does grant her insight;

‘The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark;[…] — this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.

Bibliography

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton    University Press, 2003. Print.

Bowling, Lawrence E. “What is the Stream of Consciousness Technique?” PMLA 65.4 (1950): 333- 345. JSTOR. Web. 14 January 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/459641.&gt;

Cowley, Malcolm. “Review by Malcolm Cowley of Between the Acts – England Under Glass.” Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Morris Beja. Boston: Mass. Hall, 1985. Print.

Eliot, T.S. “Ulysses, Order and Myth.” The Wasteland. Ed. Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Unanimism”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 14 Jan. 2015
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/613993/Unanimism&gt;.

Fleishman, Avrom, Viriginia Woolf: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: John Hopkins Univeristy Press, 1975.Print.

McLaurin, Allen. “Virginia Woolf and Unanimism.” Journal of Modern Literature 9.1 (1981-2): 115-122. JSTOR. Web. 6 January 2015. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831279 .>

Naremore, James. The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel. Yale: Yale University Press, 1973. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. Ed. Mark Hussey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Print.

—. “Modern Fiction” The Essays of Virginia Woolf . Ed. Andrew McNeille. Vol.4. London: Hogarth Press, 1984. Print.

—. “How it Strikes a Contemporary” Collected Essays. Vol.2. London: Hogarth Press, 1972. Print.

—. Mrs Dalloway. Ebooks @ Adelaid, 2014. Web. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91md/complete.html&gt;

—. A Room of One’s Own. London: Hogarth press, 1967. Print.

—. To the Lighthouse. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.

—. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie. Vol.2. London: Hogarth Press, 1978. Print.

On the Nascent Web and its Uncertain Future

Some few weeks ago I attended a talk given by Dr. Orla Murphy 
entitled "Paradigmatic Shifts: Narratives and Semantics Now."
Dr. Murphy explored a number of issues resulting from the
the rise of the Internet, covering topics from changes in
narrative and meaning making to the control we give the Internet 
over our lives. She brought light to new habits arising from our 
online presence, such as our willful commodifying of both our 
attention and identity, and the almost necessary 'splitting'
of our personality into various online and offline persona.

Having now had some time to digest these issues, I share my 
thoughts on them below.

Some five hundred years ago Christopher Columbus and his crew set foot on a continent that they had no idea existed. It would indeed be some years before they were to realise it existed, though their captain would deny it until his dying breath. Where they expected to find Asia they instead found America – Novo Mundo – The New World. While it is highly doubtful that Columbus was the first European to actually set foot on the Americas, he certainly discovered it for Europe. It was a discovery which not only fundamentally defined the proceeding centuries of world history but indeed rewrote everything that had come before. The conception of man changed – falteringly and obstinately but most definitely. I liken, and not without precedence, our current years – the nascent years of the online age – to this remarkable period.

The Internet, as we would today recognise it, came into being in the mid 1980s, meaning that we have had more or less 30 years to test and toy with its capabilities. Relative to human history this span is but a heartbeat, a mere breath of existence. This fact warrants more than simply stating, but should bear conscious consideration. Compare even the Internet of 5 years ago to what is available to us today. What was available but ten years ago seems almost laughable to our current capabilities. Our advancements continue at a breakneck speed that we scarce notice any more, inured by an inundation of products and services that would once have been deemed to belong to the world of science fiction. Not 30 years ago if my Mom wanted to contact my Dad, then working in London, she had to walk to a payphone, possibly queue, and be ever conscious that every second of conversation came at a price. Today she can beam her face to my brother, living just over 15,000km away in Perth, without cost, on a more stable connection while simultaneously having the wealth of the world’s collected knowledge a ‘tab’ click away. We are the first generation native to this technology and already we hunger for better, faster and more. We are the generation that feel justified in our annoyance with a slowly loading web pagde. We become irate that satellites orbiting over 35,000km above us are receiving, processing and returning information to us just about half a second too slowly. This is our reality after 30 years, not even a lifespan, with the internet. Is it even possible to imagine what we can expect in the next hundred? Like the explorers of the late 15th century, we are, to paraphrase Dr. Murphy, the colonisers of a new land, a new frontier. Already competing forces are a visibly at work in the competition to direct and define the New World of the web – what manner of civilisation, of society, will be formed from them?

It remains quite impossible to predict the trajectory of the web over even the next ten or so years. What can we say about its current path, however? Just as the men and women of Renaissance Europe did, we have brought our own dangers and diseases to our New World. Some dangers have, with experience, become quite obvious to us – the Nigerian prince and his keylogging court, or being the ever one millionth visitor to those flashiest of sites. Others however have proven much more insidious, and it seems in only recent times that the consciousness of the collected masses has roused to these perils. These are of course those threats which are legal, which we often quite consciously ascribe to. On the commercial scale Dr. Murphy points out that there exists an illusion, or perhaps delusion, of choice and individualism on the web. While we believe that we are making a custom imprint, for example in a Facebook page, we are in fact simply being harvested for data. We are reduced to our commercialisable demographics – our gender, age, interests, location and so on. Everyone’s Facebook remains blue, Dr. Murphy notes, it is but the adverts at the side which change. I would attach to this thought however an obvious but perhaps worthwhile note, that since time immemorial we have been reduced to such demographics, and not only for commercial means. Such reductionism is only human after all, it is just that this age sees us willfully participating in this at a scale previously unprecedented – and I of course include myself in this statement (Adblock being my saving grace). This is a trend which can only, I imagine, continue to grow and grow. It will soon only be the purposefully niche that will not, as Dr. Murphy phrased it, ‘harvest’ our profitable personal information. But this is simply free market eventuality, and so too is the counter evolution of products which protect or ignore that information that we want both protected and ignored. We can not, I believe, too vitriolically complain of problems whose solutions lie at our fingertips.

If we are to wax romantic we might consider those economic forces a danger to our online world. We might bemoan it as a symptom of the grossly commercial and shallow nature of humanity, or other such whiny keyboard-warrior rubbish. In reality those forces form one of the internet’s sternest buttresses and provide its most dynamic innovators. There is another side to the legally insidious on the web, and that comes not in our being monitored for our purchasing habits, but our being monitored as a constant. In retrospect the shock at the recent revelations regarding the U.S.’s NSA department seem naive. Long has literature and film depicted such capabilities, and no one has particularly batted an eyelid. James Bond having access to such data seemed a given, it was never even questioned that Bond’s fictional MI6 would (or perhaps should) be capable of such. The real M16 and its international counterparts have surprised us in acting in the way which we expected them to. In the present dramas surrounding global surveillance we have the roots of what must surely become a constant feature in our spread into cyber reality. In one corner the combined efforts of the Citizen, those men and women behind sites such as Wikileaks along with whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden. In the other the conservative forces of military and governmental authority, and the strange grey realm of their defined ‘legal’. As we implant ourselves deeper into the online, as it becomes an increasingly unavoidable part of our lives, this conflict can surely only intensify. Might we find ourselves at some point in a Neuromancer or Matrix style existence? The relocating of war to the cyber battlefield is certainly a possibility, the threads of such a future being already visible. While some might scoff at even the mere thought of this it bears remembering that the world of 30 years ago would do likewise at the idea of our current capabilities. Even the most imaginative of sci-fis failed to predict a great number of now real technological advancements, though alas the science of hyperdrive and the laser blaster seem yet beyond us.

If the Internet did indeed come into existence as an agnostic platform then it must be wondered as to how our present use of it shapes its future. Do we deliver an equalising tool to the future generations, a platform buttressed by the democratising of learning, by the giving of a voice to those who are otherwise without one… or do we burden them a shallow hyper-market, a reaper of identity and value? As ever happens when we move from the world of rhetoric to reality both ideologies must be grounded and in the impact combined. The chimera that shall emerge from this will doubtlessly prove a shapechanger, without static form or character. It will, I am sure, prove an interesting study.