Joanna Walsh’s ‘Seed’

The first thing one notices about Joanna Walsh’s online novella Seed is the quality of the design. Seed’s aesthetic is very consistent, and was obviously designed with an eye to the material at hand. For all this we have its illustrator Charlotte Hicks to thank, as well as the digital publishing company responsible for designing the platform on which the text is hosted. Seed is optimised for iOS, and, as the site tells us, is probably better viewed there, but it can also be read on a laptop or a PC.

The reader begins by being presented with seventeen different plants which open up onto different lexia, with suggestive and minimalistic titles such as ‘Baby’, ‘Touch’ or ‘Red’. Each one gives a brief insight into the life of an eighteen year old woman living in a middle-class housing estate in suburban England, coming to terms with herself, her environment, the people around her and the reality of her incipient young adulthood. By presenting the reader with seventeen different starting points (ignoring the opening explanatory remarks for a moment), and the means of proceeding in any way they might choose, the text emulates the same provisional and tentative steps that the narrator concurrently takes in the development of her own identity. In an interview, Walsh explains that the rhizoidal orientation of the text provided her with the opportunity to disorientate the reader, and perhaps engender in them the same uncertainty that the protagonist of the novella may be feeling at any given time, so that the reader has:

no sense of reading left to right, of the weight of the book, of how far they were through, or, sometimes, of the direction within the narrative.

Seed is therefore doing very deliberate and self-conscious things with the particularities of its format, typical of texts which, overtly or otherwise, draw attention to their digitality. Insofar as a firm distinction can be drawn between these two facets of the work, Seed therefore introduces a coherence/tension between its form and its content.

In a design quirk which enables this sense of openness that Seed conveys, the reader has the option of changing the text’s visual interface in order to display differently-coloured vines intertwined between each of the plants. The colours refer to each lexia’s subject matter, and inverts the standardised and industrial nature of colour-coding, a tendency, or obssession, that the narrator exhibits throughout the text:

Fruits in the supermarket. They’re a different species. Those strawberries all white in the middle all the year round, like crunchy peaches. Everything so shiny. Not a speck of earth anywhere. Why would there be? It goes straight from the formica shed to our formica kitchen. Once cut my mother wraps it in cling film and puts it in the fridge.

The narrator’s sustained attention to post-industrial artefacts, the symptoms of contemporary, or then-contemporary suburban living, is the strongest aspect of Seed. The narrator’s oscillation between a tone of matter-of-fact inventory and syntax-rupturing anxiety, enacts the very process of interpretation and the fact that so much narrative time is deployed in coming to terms with such quotidian objects, made to seem strange by their presence in a narrative medium known for attention to other, less strange things, intensifies the effect:

The doves in our garden say something else no they say somewhere else from their tall perspective looking down on lawns mowed with stripes, somewhere nature isn’t the same kind we have round here.

The site’s drawing together of Seed’s structure and content, finds a corollary in the text’s actual word usage. Walsh uses leitmotifs, particularly the names of plants or descriptions of colours in order to string each unit of text together with one another in more subtle ways, without making use of an overt visual interface.

It should be noted that the text is not as radically discontinuous as it might at first seem, or certainly was not regarded as such by Walsh, who said the following in an interview:

I’ve been thinking about the authority I’m still claiming as an ‘author’ in Seed; despite the degree of reader-control offered by the project, it’s still a fairly traditional ‘authorial’ work.

I had to write Seed as a linear text to ensure it will read ok for anyone who wants to follow the temporal narrative. That said, I never write in a ‘linear’ fashion, but in one that resembles the Seed reading experience: I write phrases, notes, paragraphs, then brings them together on shuffle, until they work.

Walsh’s comments may be surprising for those familiar with her writing methodology, which involves the use of cut-ups, or other aleatoric methods which introduce an element of chance into the composition process. It is surprising also, for those who are familiar with the somewhat niche history of digital or hypertextual literature. For many of hypertext’s trailblazing practitioners, such as Shelley Jackson or Michael Joyce, the crux of hypertextual literature was the game-playing that new digital formats allowed the author to engage in as an absent centre of meaning, which expedited the then-extremely trendy dalliances with post-structuralist philosophy and critical theory in a digital context. Within Seed’s units of text after all, there is no opportunity for interaction, except insofar as the text requires you to turn the page. In an interview with Review31, Walsh described how Seed barely resembles a hypertext in the original sense of the term at all, and that it is much better understood as a traditional work focalised around the author’s vision.

This is true, firstly for the structural reasons already outlined, but also because Seed’s formal architecture is best understood as functioning in the same way as literary works in print do, in that they imply, or gesture, far more readily than they state directly. This is axiomatic for all novels worthy of the name, but it presents an interesting means of thinking about how narrative works in the context of Seed in particular. While it might seem to present some amount of freedom or capacity for interaction, Seed is in fact circumscribing you even as it offers the chance of liberation. This has a nice visual metaphor in Seed’s visual interface which deliberately places a number of other flowers beyond the reader’s reach in darkness, suggesting both the thwarted ambition to move beyond the text that we’re presented with, and, as I’ve said already, the myopia of the narrator in her own environment:

it’s a fairly tight work, and I’ve said what I wanted to say in it. I love the idea of locked passages: part of my intent was to create a feeling of implied space beyond what is described (isn’t that the intent of most novels, to create, in however abstract a sense, a ‘world’, even if ‘world’ means a set of conceptual parameters?). I’d like to do a print edition to see if and how the circle of nonlinearity could be squared.

Though we have the ability to read Seed in any order we might like, each section is up to five pages long, and therefore requires us to read chronologically for a far greater length of time than hypertexts of the nineties do. Whether this can be attributed to the now mainstream nature of micro-textual formats, which requires literature to aspire to something else is probably a question for others to answer. Personally speaking, if writers working digitally can produce works as good as Seed, I won’t be unduly detained by the sociological reasonings why.

Advertisements

The formal constraints of William Gaddis’ ‘JR’

The opening sentence of the Dalkey Archive blurb for William Gaddis novel JR reads as follows:

First published nearly forty years ago, JR is about the many ways in which American capitalism runs wild and becomes dangerous.

I detect in this sentence, which stands in an ignoble tradition of jacket quotes on Gaddis novels, a certain amount of equivocation, particularly as it suggests that Gaddis’ critique in JR is limited to the dangerous aspects of American capitalism under specific conditions. I found JR’s social critique to be in no way measured or subtle but instead a relentless skewering of every facet of American life. It made for an interesting text to read in conjunction with Matthew Kenner’s recently published Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World, for the reason that JR frequently describes the destructive impact of centralised state-capitalist formations on the global south, a process facilitated by the ignorant in the west’s urban centres (in this case, Manhattan), who lack even the most basic language to conceptualise these processes within long-term historical perspectives.

Much like his earlier novel The Recognitions, JR is a novel far more invested in its ideas than its characters. Each is a one or two-dimensional archetype, be it artist, businessman, cuckold, nagging wife, etc, but none are fully-fledged subjects in any real sense. The novel is told primarily in a sequence of roughly three to twelve page ‘scenes’ in which a restricted number of characters speak to one another. The narrator has withdrawn almost completely, to the point that each of these scenes are exclusively composed of dialogue. They are linked, or segue into one another, by panoramic accounts of the changing environment, because the narrator is not there, and as a result debarred from moving us through time or space, which unfurl in paragraph-long sentences written in disjointed syntax:

He wiped a hand down his face and sank lower, knee thrust more sharply into the seat ahead and eyes on the serge elbow draped over ti close enough to bite, it shook, ruffling a newspaper, and the buildings on both sides began to swarm with fire escapes, rising from sight as they dropped in a culvert, dropping back as they rose, until the tunnel enclosed them like a blow. Lights came on, and ahead the door clattered open on the young conductor and closed behind him, down the aisle claming the mustache wisp with a finer tip, brushing the protruding shoe, eliciting a muttered — heil!

Gaddis’ chosen methodology, therefore requires the reader to abandon their normative reading practices and perhaps even introduce their own punctuation in order to make sense of the material. As a letter, which appears as an aside in The Recognitions reads:

The hand had defeated its own purpose: for those lines written in frantic haste took time to interpret; while it was quick work to go through those written with careful painful pauses, written slowly, to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, a habit she might have made in conversation.

However, this repudiation of convention brings with a different kind of constraint. In order to give the reader some means of differentiating the characters, Gaddis provides each of them with distinctive verbal tics. One of the novel’s characters, JR, says ‘holy’ and ‘damn’ a lot. The composer Edward Bast and the physics teacher Jack Gibbs, both speak haltingly and get interrupted a lot. Another, Rhoda, says things like ‘cat’ and ‘goddamn’. Unfortunately, Gaddis is not sparing in his use of these tics, and they will often appear three to four times in a single sentence, which lends the dialogue a particular cadence that is totally singular in terms of any prose writing I’ve ever encountered, but also grates after prolonged exposure. It may seem ridiculous to criticise a writer such as Gaddis, one with a reputation for difficulty, for signposting his writing gratuitously but this is precisely the issue. Gaddis spends a huge amount of the novel generating his own system of scaffolding with a view to compensate for an abscence of novelistic device. Rather than devising his way back out of the system he’s created, I’d prefer if he left us to it.

This effect was unfortunately compounded, for me at least, by the missing narrator. Because the text is rendered through dialogue, the narrator can’t say, ‘Bast barged into JR and spilled both of their coffees’. Instead characters have to verbally observe what’s happening, often in laughably unrealistic ways:

— What you spilled both of ours?

To take another example, we’ll be told during one of the prolongedly undulating descriptive passages that Emily Joubert is eating a sandwich. For the remainder of the scene, every line of dialogue tagged with ‘said through sandwich’ or ‘said through bread’ is Amy Joubert. This all seems to me like a very long way around Gaddis’ initial problem, which is his attempt to transcend the formulaic habits engendered by ‘x said, y said’. JR re-trains us in reading, but does so by bringing us through huge amounts of textual redundancy.

If we were to try to redeem Gaddis on this account we could do worse than relate it to his critique of the American education system; these are the points in the novel that I think he is at his strongest. Gaddis was extremely prescient in identifying the increasing proximity of the education system to private capital as an utterly toxic development and correct in regarding it as a ponzi scheme for the funneling of public money into private enterprise in the form of subsidies. Principal Whiteback spouts nonsensical managerial techno-speak about upskilling, betraying his misplaced faith in ambitious investments:

— Right Dan, the norm in each case supporting, or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of testing the norm comes out as the norm or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in thse terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself, in budgetary terms that is to say.

Gaddis does not overlook the complicity of the artist in all this. Bast is a talented composer living in poverty, but is recruited by the school’s investment programme with a view to imbuing it with his artistic nous. Gaddis clearly regards the television, screen-dependent technologies and the growth of visual based media as utterly detrimental to education, and even if his grasp on these issues is not particularly nuanced, his identification of automated teaching as playing into the interests of private capital was bang on. For instance, Principal Whiteback observes that in an education sector under austerity budgeting, books are the first thing to go. Perhaps these characters’ comments on straightforward textual actions could be the symptom of a cultural movement from codex to image, one where there is no ambiguity, no room for thought, just the endless proliferation of image.

But the notion of a woke Gaddis can only take us so far based on how his vision of a society obssessed with appearance relates to his representation of women, who are described only in physical terms. Be it breasts, nipples, asses, décolletage, throats or thighs, the amount of body parts circulating when a woman is involved is deeply wearying, particularly when none of the women are afforded the space to be the sensitive soul artist types like Bast and Gibbs, but are all instead shallow, appearance-obsessessed or lascivious. His treatment of one particular gay character is also jaw-droppingly insensitive and clichéd. If we were to take Jonathan Franzen at his word (never wise) and regard Gaddis as the primary architect behind a particular kind of bleakly comic, imperial postwar Amerian novel-writing, we can see in Gaddis the roots of much of the misogyny which characterises the writings of David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover etc. No matter how radical the epistemological critiques of these authors, or the sophistication of their understanding of systems, their writing indulges time and time again the male gaze.

The Chronicle of Mr. Cogito

Señor C had made an informed judgement on every part of his body. He had in his possession a number of journals, encyclopaedias and compendia on the subject of anatomy and from these sources and others, he considered himself to be informed. He had judged his thighs, he had judged his kneecaps. He had judged his thighs and the kneecaps at their ends and found them not deficient, deficient as others, others whose judgements were not invested with the same accuracy of his own, not to speak of the textbooks from which they were derived, may perceive them as being. They were different, certainly. Striking? Of course. Unusual? Oh, there could be no doubt. But deformed?

One of the books Señor C had read was entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Well, not the whole thing, in truth, but a good heft of’t. His failure in completing the text was pathological, and not attributable to a lapse in his academic diligence. Señor C would be overcome by fits of giggling when he reached a section, just some yards wide of the half-way point. A noble vista, if only it could be reached! The unyielding paragraph described how a combination of selective breeding on the part of the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa and just a bit of individual ingenuity on behalf of each beast, could cause the neck of a giraffe to become elongated. Señor C would laugh, and his entire body would begin to curl up into itself. His backside leaned dangerously over the edge of, and then off the edge of, his chair, leaving Señor C to keel over and curl yet further, onto the floor. His resemblance to tape turning about a spool was most uncanny. There, he would endure what remained of his laughing fit, until the memory of the Serengeti, the giraffes and tribes all had passed from his mind. After havong regained his composure, Señor C would ask himself, was that truly that funny? Was it really? Señor C was a curious sort, and no less curious on the subject of himself.

All the same, by this stage in the text, Señor C had gained some familiarity with Darwin’s thesis and thusly it was possible for regard his kneecaps as an adaptation, of potential benefit to future generations. Not that Señor C was likely to ever viviparate. Though sometimes he cultivated daydreams of producing a stolon. Stretching, in order to quell an incipience in one of his arms, there would be another Señor C, moustachioed and sodden in afterbirth, just as mystified as he, the initial incarnation of Señor C, was, at the terminus of an adnexa that had them conjoined.

Señor C’s kneecaps were reversed. His knees looked to what was behind him. Señor C intermittently regretted that there was no one else in his home to witness his adaptation. He often longed for someone to collaborate with in the combing over the finer details. In order to resolve the dilemma of his solitude, Señor C apprenticed himself, with the diligence of the isolated obsessive, in the art of naively witnessing his own life. He placed himself in rooms before he arrived in them, and watched himself enter. It was, like all skills in the making, a real slippery bastard. The key was to prevent himself from forcing his efforts, lest he jump the mark and his imagination fill the gap. This is what had happened when Señor C experienced a deceptive breakthrough which had seemed at first, reliable, as far as perceptions go. There he was, maladroitly astride the doorframe, surely himself, all angular imprecision, testing the strength of his tendons by leaning in incorrect and frankly performative ways. But then, reproducing the image subsequently, he supplanted what he truly did look like with what he thought he looked like. Perhaps it had since worked, perhaps on other occasions it had not. It is difficult to say, and more difficult still to describe what it is like to see with the eyes of an empty room.

Señor C thought often about his attic. Such a strange room. A strange room in that it was valued for its capacity to take objects, from rooms where they were not wanted. Could

the attic be regarded as existing in the same category as other rooms? If the attic was a non-room, did it feel left out? If it did feel left out, did this cause jealousy, resentment? Correlatively, is it possible the other rooms felt bloated, stuffed to their fetters with objects, desperate to unload their contents somewhere, resentful in turn of the myriadminded creature that moved in them? Could the attic conspire with the other rooms, to offload their wastage? Or would the attic conspire to distribute its space within other rooms? If such a transaction of room between rooms, would they be mindful of his position at the time of transfer? Would it be possible that a corner of a room would materialise within his body as he passed through his home? Señor C began to formulate a more deliberate gait, as if ready to fend off a part of his attic that might produce itself in the middle of his chest cavity.

Señor C found himself less capable of plying the familiar in-roads of his thoughts of pursuing his regular hobbies, becoming uncertain as to whether ‘phthisic’ should indeed follow on from ‘phthirophagus’ in the dictionary. Verifying that words in his edition of the Oxford English Dictionary did indeed appear in alphabetical order was one such pastime.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I

It was a mannered song. It was in the old style. The notes were embraced and theatrically uncoupled, by a vocalist who performed beneath the rasp of a big band. These symptoms of its disingenuity and more irked him, but he acclimatised. Once, it roused him from sleep to half-doze and he would lie there on his back, being confused, but it now relaxed him. He drifted off while grinding his teeth in rhythm with the drummer’s bemsha- plodding. He was content to allow matters stand as they were, until the song started to leave a sugary crust on the walls, which he picked at like a neurotic.

He climbed the stairs to the attic and there found a stack of clockwork phonographs, inert, corner into corner into corner, perfectly. Not one side of any phonograph was infringed upon by contact with any other side; they were all pristine hexagons in terrible sequences. Señor C saw himself in his dreams, running at them and being impaled in eighteen places, each point of incision exactly twelve inches from any other.

It was inconceivable to disturb even one of the phonographs, for fear of bringing an end to the geometry, the beauty of which would have brought tears to Señor C’s eyes if the affecting ballad had not in his mind, run the diapason entire from affecting to saccharine, to bothersome, to sickly to nauseating.

So he let it be for now, and allowed the crust to swell yet further.

Though, sometimes he did not let it be, and would return, full of the failure’s vigour for the resumed task, and found that on some quantum plane, the phonographs had begun to disembroil themselves from one another. In doing so, they excreted from themselves the colour brown, which was not brown, in truth, but a boiled brown.

This ooze was making its way across the attic floorboards. Though Señor C could not be certain that this melting, 0 wherefore melting, was not a discolouration of a more pedestrian sort, a mere stain in the attic’s floor, one that he had never before noticed. So he marked in the eye of his mind how far the stain halted before a particular grike in the floorboards and resolved to leave the room for a cluster of days, so that where the stain had progressed to could be contrasted with the stain as it is now.

In his dreams, he watched himself, inchoate with a rage he had been ignorant of in his real life, smash the phonographs to bits with a brass ear trumpet.

When the day finally came to trace the stain’s progression, Señor C pretended to have forgotten. He completed his morning ritual with a broadcast nonchalance, before allowing himself to remember to check the stain.

It had indeed advanced by a small, but indisputable margin. The gramophones from which the ooze emanated were increasingly reduced. Señor C knelt and asked the stain a question.

— What in the name of Christ is this?

They were not interested in his platitudes.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I…

Today, Señor C was overly attendant to the process of preparing his breakfast, in order to distract himself from the man floating in his kitchen.

It was a man of ordinary height and appearance, some seven feet from the floor, and some two feet three inches from the ceiling. Apart from the general ‘wrongness’ of his manifestation (levitation, etc.), his orientation was skewed or incorrect. His front was too oriented; he looked neither upwards nor downwards, but in some 65 degree direction.

Señor C did not wish to touch the man or to address him. Or, to look at him, really. Señor C’s coping mechanism in this instance was, altogether different from the one he adopted when confronted with the loosening gramophones. Rather than generously apportioning himself periods of time during which he would pretend not to care, Señor C restrained himself from looking at the man altogether and only when in the midst of a cough, did he allow his eyes to look upwards at some glancing light off of the man’s shoe, for instance.

In spite of this austerity of glimpses, Señor C came to see that the man was slowly, slowly turning through the air, as considered and balletic as any circus acrobat. His display was far more impressive however, as he did so without the supports usually granted to the performer. One could appreciate this if one were capable of considering such things without being made to feel deeply uncomfortable, and Señor C could not.

Señor C began to wonder if there was an empirical means of verifying the man’s rotation. He supposed that the best option was to plot the angle in which his shoes were pointing at the current moment, and where they were pointing five, six days hence. He could use a measuring tape to chart this point from the shoe itself to one of the walls and mark it in pencil.

But he didn’t bother, and used the man as a clothes horse, despite the unsettling vision the man gave, swaddled in white sheets, hovering about his kitchen table like a profane and somnolent Virgin Mary, ascending body and soul to heaven, albeit at an unbearably torpid rate.

Mirrors stopped reflecting Señor C and Señor C began to reflect mirrors.

Climbing the stairs one evening, he put his foot through one of the steps.

Things that Señor C put down would disappear. Not in the quaint way that this befalls all of us, when something else confronts us as task and, oh, where did that thing I had get to, Señor C watched them, watched them, dissolve.

Señor C had placed great dependence on the constancy of the rules which governed the basic tenets of his life and did not know why they were being razed so frequently of late. He did not know why he had not left his home in many, many years. He did not know why he hadn’t seen another person in an even longer span of time. He longed to take an iron to things, to straighten out the world’s bunching wrinkles.

Vegetarian Spice Bag Recipe

Serves 2, roughly

Ingredients

250g halloumi, cut into roughly thumb sized rectangles

250g Maris Piper potatoes, skin on, cut into thin chips

100g green beans

100g mangetout

1 onion, diced

100 ml apple cider vinegar

100 ml dark soy sauce

100 ml honey

4 star anise

2 tsp cinnamon power

1 piece of fresh ginger, thumb-sized

5 garlic cloves

juice of 1 lemon

5 beaten eggs

100g of flour

100g of oats

Cumin seeds

Paprika

Cayenne Chili Powder

Fennel Seeds

Caster sugar

Sunflower oil

salt (some regular, some of that coarse unground stuff too)

pepper

1/2 tsp dried chilli powder

4 red chillies, finely sliced

2 red peppers and 2 green peppers, cut vertically into thin strips

1 banana shallot, cut vertically into thin strips (if your local doesn’t have one of these, i’m informed you can approximate the flavour profile with a small onion and a few cloves of garlic)

1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder (if your local doesn’t have this, you can do one up by grinding and mixing together one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of cloves, one star anize, one teaspoon of (toasted) szechuan peppercorns and one teaspoon of (toasted) fennel seeds

Method:

Start by making the batter for the halloumi. Mix together the oats and flour, add a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of paprika and two teaspoons of caster sugar.

Put a pan onto high heat and toast a spoonfull of fennel seeds and a spoonful of cumin seeds for about a minute or two, until they start releasing their aromas and before they get too brown. Grind these up and put them with the flour and oats, adding a dash or two more of paprika or cayenne or both, depending on how spicy you want the batter to be.

Whisk the 5 eggs together. We use this to dip the halloumi strips into before covering them in the batter to be sure it adheres. It’s best to dip it in egg, cover it in oats then dip and batter again to get as much batter as possible on each strip. If you run out of batter, just make more. Once this is all done, set them aside and refrigerate for a few hours if possible.

Fry the chips in a deep-fat fryer or just in a pan with enough oil that a good few can be totally submerged at once. Probably safer to do it in batches, mind not to burn yourself. Once they’re finished drain them on plates covered in kitchen paper.

Next deep fry the halloumi. Add the lemon juice and 2 ground star anise to a pan on high heat, then add as much oil as you need to get all of the halloumi at least half-submerged. Turn them over after three minutes or once the batter is nicely browned on the outside. Once they’re finished drain them on plates covered in kitchen paper.

Combine the peppers, banana shallot, two tablespoons of coarse sea salt, one teaspoon of pepper, the chinese five-spice powder, chilli powder and red chillies. Put these in a pan with the apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, honey, 2 ground star anise and cinnamon on medium to high heat. Grate in the ginger and garlic cloves, then add the green beans, mangetout and onions and cook for 10–12 minutes or until the veg is tender. Stir well while cooking.

Throw in the chips and halloumi and mix until everything’s hot then serve.

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.

Collocations in Modernist Prose

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 14.51.47I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.

Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.

Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:

young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland

Canonical modernist texts:

young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth

Contemporary texts, Enright, Self, Baume, McBride:

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time

Djuna Barnes

frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say

Eimear McBride

kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back

Elizabeth Bowen

mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard

Ernest Hemingway

robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said

F. Scott FitzGerald

new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back

Gertrude Stein

gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day

James Joyce

buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce

Marcel Proust

young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time

Samuel Beckett

said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor

Sara Baume

even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye

Virginia Woolf

miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened

Anne Enright

new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty

Will Self

fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since

Flann O’Brien

father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty

Ford Madox Ford

henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw

Jorge Luis Borges

ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago

Joseph Conrad

mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones

D.H. Lawrence

young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day

William Faulkner

uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general

Angela Nagle’s ‘Kill all Normies’

It should be stated at the outset that the structure of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies deflects the inevitable critiques that will comes its way. Kill All Normies cannot be evaluated in the same way as other non-fictive socio-political texts, given the fact that it contains an anthropological investigation into a particular subculture with no references, no overall evaluation of sources, methodological reflection, statistics, ethnographic accounts, interviews, review of extant literature or even definition of terms. All too often, phrases which are evidently freighted with significance are deployed (e.g. ‘ultra Puritanism’) without clear explication. This indeterminacy at the level of the ideas the text aims to convey find reflection in the mechanics of Nagle’s prose, which manifests repetition, sentence fragmentation, typos, random capitalisations, poor formatting, etc. Kill All Normies is a book badly in need of an editor.

While we could attribute this to the nascency of the field, Nagle’s analysis is indebted to thinkers such as Frederich Nietzsche, the Marquis de Sade and Antonio Gramsci, and furthermore, manifestations of a fervent, newly-emboldened right are not new, and it is on this basis that I would have appreciated an apologetic preface for such a decidedly impressionistic genealogy of the alt-right. Of course, to dwell on these points would be unfair, given that that it is the publisher’s aim, as I understand it, to get the book out while these issues remain topical. Given that Trump is the President of the U.S., things cannot be expected to remain in their current state for long.

Nagle clearly possesses a broad knowledge of the irredentist sect of the moment, and is very aware of how the fragmented 4chan, 8chan, the PUA, MRA movements initially developed, clashed, split and subsequently overlapped. As a catalogue of the horrors inflicted by the alt-right on women, Nagle’s book is very effective. Problems arise in Nagle’s attempts to correlate the growth of ‘This network,’ with the current American administration. Trump is a disaster on Twitter, of course, but it is important to understand him, not just as a troll, but as the son of a real estate developer and a reality TV star given a platform by a number of media outlets despite his abhorrent views, because he represents a revenue opportunity. Throughout the book, the collective actions of trolls is given far more credit than they deserve in bringing far right opinion into media discourse, at the expense of media outlet’s puff profiles on dapper Nazis, or consistent presentations of straight up bigoted views.

Another crux of Nagle’s argument is that contemporary manifestations of the left, with its sustained focus upon identity politics, is responsible for the aggressive tone of the alt-right. It’s at least slightly bathetic to come, after sustained research upon such a specific sub-culture that would seem to be possible only within the contemporary, networked media landscape to come away with a variation on horseshoe theory, i.e. ‘there’s extremes on both sides of the argument’. Nagle derives this point from her concept of the notion of transgression, which she traces through the writings of the de Sade and Nietzsche. According to Nagle’s account, the alt-right is both an avant-garde and the true inheritor of the taboo-busting tendencies of leftism of ‘the 60s’ in its ‘libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately…nihilism’. In proving that the feminist movements of the sixties (civil rights movements going unnamed), derived at least some of their impetus from de Sadean notions of transgression, Nagle cites right-wing thinkers who believed feminism was out to destroy the nuclear family, not necessarily the sources I would defer to in characterising second-wave feminism.

I have not read enough history or theory to cast informed doubt on the notion that second-wave feminism was ‘very much on the side of the transgressive tradition of de Sade,’ nor to what extent it was on the de Sadean / Rousseauist binary, as Nagle argues, but I am definitely uncertain, as to whether the struggle for feminism ‘is essentially a moral one,’ as Nagle contends. Perhaps within some sectors it is, but I would think that the struggle for equality is more a matter of political economy than morality, and that a substantial section of feminist theory would dispute that any one morality motivates it, due to its patriarchal overtones. I am of course, open to being corrected on this point, but this is one of the most glaring instances in which sources are lacking and broad, indistinct cultural trends are being made to bear a significant burden of proof. For example, I have no notion what phrases such as ‘racial politics that has held since WWII’ are supposed to amount to, or mean.

The chapters in which these arguments are made would probably have benefitted from more systematic, and perhaps chronological account of the left from the sixties to the present day, rather than Nagle’s tendency to move back and forth between the sixties, nineties or the eighteenth century. An analysis rooted in chronology might have focused Nagle’s attention on trends such as lapses in class consciousness, (expedited by anti-union policies enacted by British and American administraions), the war on drugs, (a veneer for a sustained assault upon communities of colours’ capacity to organise themselves) and globalisation, economic developments I would identify as more pertinent to political trends than semiotic of the transgressive.

In identifying particular trends within intersectional leftist discourse Nagle identifies the calling out of racism and sexism as ‘crying wolf’, false calls for help which presaged the arrival of ‘the real wolf’, of the alt-right. Nagle also characterises the movement by focusing on tumblr sub-groups such as otherkin, spoonies, and people who get their limbs surgically removed [citation needed] because they identify as disabled, rather than sustained attention to the writings or activism of bell hooks or Angela Davis. By defining intersectionality as people identifying as dragons (which isn’t to throw them under the bus, identify as whatever you want, I don’t mind) undermines the very real struggles of trans people seeking to eke out safe existences for themselves. To take just one guardian story from yesterday, 50% of trans teens have attempted suicide. Personally I think proclaiming solidarity in the struggle for their rights is a good thing to do, I’m not sure a leftism willing to relegate trans or race issues to second place is a leftism worth having, which is why the polarity Nagle upholds at one stage: ‘Milo and his Tumblr-dwelling gender fluid enemies’, is so mystifying. Milo’s enemies could just as easily be described as women of colour in the real world, or the trans folk he was planning to out during his campus tour.

Nagle’s argument that the alt-right developed in opposition to the left seems peculiar, as it seems that racism, anti-semitism, isolationism emerges from a political tendency that is readily identified. Further, rather than taking Milo seriously when he says things like this, one could argue that these figures foremost within the alt-right have opportunistically identified a number of demographic scapegoats which media platforms are not above bashing now and again, or persistently. Perhaps longer term historical trends such as racism or the war on terror might be more to blame for these views entering the mainstream than the left, or Gramscian theory.

It is unfortunately typical for Nagle’s analyses to take insufficient account of power relations, providing sympathetic points of departure for alt-right agents, such as male suicide rates and an ‘intolerant’ or ‘dogmatic’ feminists, but not leftist contingents composed of BAME groups or the disabled. On the one hand Nagle summarises the left as represented by performatively self-abnegating comments of no-marks such as Arthur Chu, monolithically useless, disengaged, ineffectual, on the other their Chomskyian logics have created and been co-opted by an alt-right that have taken over the US presidency. A greater focus on class from the liberal left would be a good thing to see, but I would argue it is not to be found here.

The iron rule holds true; never trust a writer who cites the Sokal hoax.