Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

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Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction

And so but I’ve been re-reading Infinite Jest in this strange, almost purely subconscious way, where I take on just a few pages (seriously, like 2-3 pages) every night right before sleeping. I’ve done the calculations, and so you don’t have to tell me it will literally take years to finish it this way.

I’m in no rush. I’ve read it before.

If you’ve never read it, you really must. It’s terrifying how prescient it is. How could someone in the mid 90’s have seen the coming technology that would be so entertaining it would totally consume our lives? I’m thinking Twitter and Facebook and our phones and the games on them. But DFW actually has a Netflix-like system where people can watch any TV they want at any time. That was unthinkable back then.

It also predicts that we’d come to live in an opioid epidemic.

And all of the below, etc.

Anyway, I digress.

This weird thought occurred to me around page 300 (yes, I’ve been doing this for 100+ days already):

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Hear me out. This is one of those things that’s so obvious it requires justification.

I know, Don Gately is in a halfway house for Demerol addiction, and the opening scene is of Hal’s (supposed) reaction to taking DMZ destroying his life, and the kids at the Tennis Academy do pot and alcohol and amphetamines and have tricks to pass urine tests.

I know, the title refers to entertainment so infinitely addicting you pee and poop yourself and then die rather than pull yourself away, and that one character, whose name I can’t remember, holed up in the bathroom stall of a library and drank cough syrup every day to avoid withdrawal but had to go out at some point and ends up having a massive DT withdrawal on a train and probably dies.

I know DFW, himself, had addiction problems and was in AA.

Etc, etc.

But hear me out. It’s not as obvious as it seems. Addiction is everywhere in the novel, but what is the novel about?

What if someone said to you: Breaking Bad is about addiction.

You’d say: Whoa! Hang on. Addiction is everywhere in that series, sure, but that’s not at all what the show is about. Not. Even. Close.

DFW is famous for complaining about the reviews (even (especially) the positive ones!!) when it came out, because no one could possibly have read it in the two-week window (or whatever it was) and actually understood what it was about.

I owed it to him to understand what the book was about if he would rather have crappy reviews than positive reviews by people too intimidated by it to admit they were clueless as to what the book was even about.

I took his comments to heart.

Infinite Jest wasn’t about addiction. That was too obvious. Everyone would immediately understand the book if that’s what it was about.

DFW was also obsessed with literary theorists and philosophy and Wittgenstein and psychiatry and math and semiotics and postmodernism and irony, etc. I looked to these for answers, and I found a treasure trove of ideas.

I won’t try to go into depth on what I came up with. You can see early thoughts in some other posts I’ve done: Westward and Preparation for Infinite Jest among others.

Basically, one can read Infinite Jest as a critique of the psychological theories of Jacques Lacan. The “Entertainment,” at least as much as we can see in the novel, is an on-the-nose manifestation of his ideas.

Language is central to our subconscious, and Saussure’s signifier/signified distinction live on different layers. Wallace thought these poststructuralists were brilliant but flawed. Infinite Jest wants to use postmodernism to show why they were flawed.

Now we’re on to what the novel might actually be about!

Many scenes support this reading, mostly having to do with the various recovery methods. Wallace wants to say: how do we break free of our addictions? Well, it’s obviously not what these theorists were saying! Look what that would look like.

DFW presents a parody as refutation.

This view is also supported by all the circumstances under which characters literally lose their ability to speak. Sure, drugs are the proximate cause, but think through the other circumstances of their lives at that time. Think about Hal’s encounter with the therapist after finding his father having committed suicide.

Why was Wallace upset at people calling the novel funny?

Maybe it’s that things that were supposed to be deep references to Lacan were seen as surface-level jokes.

Corporations subsidize years in the future. Most of Infinite Jest takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). We laugh, thinking about what it would be like to have to sign checks with the year being the name of an incontinence product.

No!

It’s more than that. The year wasn’t chosen purely for humor. It’s saying that when our society progresses to this point, adults will have regressed back to babies. All we think of is: want, want, want. We rage at the TV like a baby when Netflix goes out for, heaven forbid, 30 seconds.

In Wallace’s version of the future, terrorists use this entertainment as a tool of both terror and placation. In our reality, we entertain ourselves to death with Facebook while our adversaries use it to elect our presidents for us.

And so but then we don’t care. We want reality stars to be our leaders. It keeps us entertained.

What in the world was this post even about anymore? How did I start talking about real life when this is supposed to be about a book published over 20 years ago?

Focus.

I thought Infinite Jest was about this brilliant refutation of heady philosophers. It cleverly uses addiction to get these points across in multiple ways. It invents its own language to poke at the signifier/signified hypothesis.

Then I woke up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, heart pounding, disoriented (probably withdrawal), and I thought to myself:

Maybe Infinite Jest is about addiction.

Then I realized it doesn’t matter.

Your phone notified you of 10 more interesting things since you started reading this. You haven’t made it this far, and we can’t progress. Our eyes are stuck to the screen. We won’t be able to pull ourselves away. We will poop and pee ourselves and wish we had put on our Depends until it doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be dead.

The thought brought me comfort, and I went back to sleep.

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

Specter of the Spheres: Prologue

It’s probably not fair to spend years on this blog teaching writing and prose techniques and critiquing other novels without ever showing my own. Here’s the prologue from my newest book for your enjoyment.

Specter of the Spheres

Prologue

Priestess Elienne squinted toward the southern horizon. The blood moon hung low, and time was short until daylight burned again. The grand arch glinted in the moonlight, marking the entrance to the underground vault. They would make it in time.

Her defender swarm pattered a rhythmic beat across the ruined lands and lulled her into a trance as they pressed forward. Each defender looked exactly the same: smooth obsidian shells that came up to her knees and eight razor-sharp legs. They had no eyes or faces. They moved by sensing the priestess’s heat signature or potential enemies.

Elienne knew from her studies that people would have called them spiders in the old language, but this wasn’t quite right. They were larger, and they had an intelligence spiders didn’t have.

They also harbored the souls of dead people. This was how they got their name: specterlings. They weren’t ghosts, though, a common misunderstanding of how the necromantic arts worked. A priestess had incarnated the shells, merely giving the illusion of life.

Elienne’s head snapped toward the western hills as the lead defender cried out its warning signal.

The sun?

No. A lava nethermental rushed at them, and the first crawler darted forward to protect the priestess.

She shouted, “No! Get back!”

The specterlings swarmed forward anyway, not understanding the true danger. Their only trained goal was protection. In most circumstances their leg blades would shred any threat: the swarm a stampede of razors.

Molten rock oozed out of the nethermental’s body, leaving a trail of dark pumice. The huge body rose to twice her height. It swung its boulder arms viciously at the attackers. Bits of lava and fire splattered haphazardly.

Elienne had no time to figure out who would have breathed life into such a destructive golem—probably one of the Persuader’s minions. She watched in horror as the lava hardened in an instant, trapping every one of her defenders.

A bright trail of fire arced and crackled through the air as the beast swiped at the lead crawler again. The crawler’s incinerated body melted into poison, a last-resort line of defense should all the specterlings die.

But the lava nethermental stomped over it, unfazed. No one had predicted such forces would try to stop her. Elienne needed time she didn’t have. One of her remaining specterlings had to remain alive for a banishment enchantment.

She pulled a dark purple crystal from her pack and slammed it into the sandy ground. It poked out at an awkward angle but stayed upright.

A vibrant glow emanated outward, and she began to sing in the ancient language.

Swipe: two more specterlings down. Poison pooled outward, and Elienne’s breathing doubled as she realized she might be too close to it. Her flesh body was not immune.

There isn’t time to move away, she thought.

She continued to sing with intense focus. The crystal shook under the tension in the winding melody. The song carried Elienne away from the scene. She closed her eyes. The beauty hurt. Her body shook with the pain, and she took it all upon herself. She needed more pain than ever before if she was to kill the powerful beast.

The ground now shuddered under the weight of the nethermental as it trampled closer. She opened her eyes to see the damage. Only one specterling remained. Elienne looked at where the nethermental’s eyes should have been but only saw oozing rock.

It somehow knew her location and moved directly toward her.

She needed that last specterling as a sacrifice for the necromantic ritual to work. As the nethermental’s swipe came forward, she completed the song and pushed pain into the crystal.

The crystal converted the pain to energy, which shot into the specterling. The defender called out a dying shriek, and Elienne relaxed. The specterling died before it received the blow from the nethermental.

The energy from the sacrificed life pulsed into the blazing golem in an ascendant burst. It landed with a sharp crack, and the beast collapsed into a lifeless heap of black rock, still glimmering from the heat.

Elienne fell to the ground, panting from the effort. Her small army of defenders were dead, and now she was on her own. If any more danger appeared, she’d have to fight without necromancy. She looked to where the monster had been, and the world distorted in waves from the shimmering heat.

Elienne pushed back to her feet and returned the depleted crystal to her pack. The sands tumbled under her feet, making the long journey harder than it needed to be. A heavy weight pressed on her shoulders.

She didn’t think she could continue; the ritual had taken too much out of her. Every muscle in her body drooped toward the ground, begging for rest. The singeing pain lingered from the ritual, but the sorrow at having failed her people hurt worse.

She was a priestess who had taken on vows. It had been over a millennium since the last failure, and that had wrecked the world. They almost hadn’t survived. With how things were now, all life would end this time.

Elienne glanced from her feet to the horizon once more. The arch marking the entrance to the vault grew as she approached, and she realized there was still hope. A quick flutter of energy titillated her chest, but the blood moon hung low. If the heat of the sun peaked the horizon, she’d be burned alive—darkness or moonlight were the only viable possibilities for survival.

She pressed on faster, not caring about her own life. It would be sacrificed at the coming ritual in hours anyway. Each one of the seven sects would send one priestess to complete the ritual and keep the world going.

They were seen as evil by most. Necromancy looked like an unnatural art to the rest of the world, and people had tried to squash them since the dawn of time.

But they weren’t evil. They protected life through sacrifice. Without death, there could be no life. Why couldn’t people understand that instead of sending these beasts to destroy them each blood moon?

Elienne shook herself free of these thoughts as she felt the sun burn her shoulders. She despaired that she had failed in her duty. She had been trained as a priestess for this one moment. The ritual kept the gods appeased. Without the ritual, during the full blood moon, the caverns would crack open and be exposed to the sun. They would all die, and without them, the humans would die as well.

Elienne ran with all her might. She couldn’t let that happen. A vicious scream came from her lips as the sun rounded the horizon. The lava nethermental had caused too much of a delay.

She reached the steps leading down to the vault, but the heat was too much; she collapsed. And with that, the end of the world began. The fools who had sent the monster knew not what they had done.


Six figures towered over Elienne, each adorning the black robes of a priestess. Every part of her body hurt. She could tell there were bruises all over. Flashes of the scene struck her memory: tumbling, crying out, and cracks of flesh on stone.

Elienne blinked several times as she tried to get her bearings.

One of the other priestesses said, “You made it. We didn’t think you were coming.”

She didn’t say anything. What was there to say? They’d all be dead the next night when they sacrificed themselves—no need to make friends. They had a job to do.

She looked around in fascination. Elienne had wondered what the inside of the vault looked like since she was a child. Now she had a single day to explore it. She cautiously pushed herself to her elbows. Her voice was shaky.

“What happened?”

Another priestess said, “We don’t know. We heard screams and rushed over. The vault sealed itself, so we’re safe now.”

Another said, “You should rest. You’ll need your strength for the ritual.”

Two of them swooped in with bizarre coordination, and Elienne felt too exhausted to resist. She gave in to the arms as she was carried to a different chamber. Seven beds were lined along the wall, and the two priestesses set Elienne on the first one.

She let the blackness overtake her.

The sound of whispered voices woke her, and she had no idea how much time had passed. They wouldn’t have let her sleep through the ritual. One of them noticed the stirring and called over.

“It is time.”

A pang of disappointment filled Elienne. She had dreamed of the vault her whole life, and now that she was here, she wouldn’t get the chance to see it before sacrificing herself on the altar.

She stood from the bed, still shaky from the pain song. A sudden fear filled her. What if she didn’t have the strength to go through with it? The upcoming ritual sacrifice would take much more concentration and intensity than the simple banishment spell she had done on the nethermental.

Elienne pulled herself from the bed and limped to the huddled group. Each step brought a sharp pain to her ankle, and she wondered if she had broken it while falling down the stairs.

One of the priestesses asked, “Can you make it to the altar?”

Elienne nodded. The group trudged along, up the stairs to the altar on top of the vault. She didn’t expect the simplicity of it. It appeared to be a stone statue with none of the intricate flair of the temple they worshiped at back home.

Seven circles rounded the altar, one for each priestess to stand on.

The group knew exactly what to do. They had all trained for this moment intensely. They waited for the proper alignment of the blood moon through the aperture in the statue. When the moment hit, a dark blood stain appeared across the altar symbolizing the first sacrifice that saved the world.

They held hands, and the priestess from the Haiel faction began the song. Each faction had a separate part of the song, and none had heard any of the other parts. A thrill filled Elienne now that she would get to hear it in full. After a few measures of the melody, the second priestess joined in.

The harmony produced a dark, strange sensation inside of Elienne. It was nothing like the painful beauty she was used to. Her turn came third, and she started the song. She focused hard at producing a clean tone when the first notes came out raspy.

The sounds meshed, and her voice cleared. Pain entered the song with her voice, and she saw the others cringe who hadn’t started their part.

They needed to take on the pain. It was essential to the completion of the ritual.

The rest of the parts joined, one by one, and each brought its own emotions to it. The cacophony of the counterpoint almost made Elienne falter. It was hard to focus on her own part when so many strange sounds kept coming at her and making her feel intense sensations: rage, lust, and even joy.

As the song intensified to the point of no return, the blood stain brightened. Elienne feared they had sung all the way to morning, and now the sunlight would burn them before they succeeded.

The light brightened more and more. But it wasn’t the fire of sunlight. It had no heat, just an intense whiteness.

She was blinded by it but kept her focus on the song. A burst of ecstasy exploded in Elienne’s gut, and she couldn’t sing anymore. It didn’t matter, because the song ended, and all that remained was the light.

Specter of the Spheres - High Resolution

A note on genre and buying options if you’re curious:

The full novel isn’t quite as fantasy-oriented as it sounds. It fits better under the category of magical realism or slipstream (if you know what that is). Here’s the description:

The world ends each blood moon.

But a faction of priestesses sacrifice themselves to keep it going. What happens when Aceline wants more for her life and decides not to do it?

Wallace has chased his dream of becoming a poet for a lifetime. It leads him toward a mysterious aurora.

Robert just wanted to connect with other humans in a world dictated by screens, algorithms, and addiction.

These three become linked across worlds, and each must uphold their end of a quest to prevent catastrophe at the hands of a tyrant in a land full of necromancy.

It officially releases tomorrow as an e-book. It will be free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and can be pre-ordered now. Also, the paper version can be ordered now, and you will get the e-book free if you get the hardcopy.

Amazon page here.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 4: Derrida

This series hasn’t been as rough as I’ve expected this far. The first few parts showed some of the classic postmodernists to be clearer and more prescient than many give them credit for. This changes all that. Derrida is rough going. I chose his most famous work, Differance, for today.

I couldn’t remember if I had read this before, and then I read the first paragraph. Oh, boy. It all came flooding back. Not only had I read this, I’d watched a whole lecture or two on it as well. I’m not sure it’s fair to be super critical of lack of clarity when reading a translation, but in this case, I think it’s warranted (more on that later).

The article begins by Derrida making up a new word: differance. It is phonetically related to “defer,” meaning to be displaced in time, and it is phonetically related to “differ,” meaning to not be identical.

So what is differance? Here’s the clearest explanation I’ve come up with after reading the opening paragraphs many, many times. Derrida wants to say that two things can only differ if there is a relationship between them for comparison. Anything that has such a relationship must have something in common. So:

We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical.

Derrida then starts dancing around what he means. I don’t say this to be demeaning. His whole point is that language can’t describe the thing he is getting at, so he must dance around it to give you some idea about what he wants differance to mean.

To defer makes use of time, but differance is outside time. Differance produces the differences between the differences. It isn’t a word. It isn’t a concept. I’m going to describe differance as a “tool” or even “thought experiment” to get at Derrida’s particular form of deconstruction even though he doesn’t exactly say that.

Now I’m supposed to be doing “critical” readings of these texts, so I’ll admit this type of thing makes me feel a little funny. On the one hand, I’m okay with being a bit loose on definitions if the only point is to perform a thought experiment. On the other hand, I fear there will be a switch at some point where we start attributing a bunch of unknowable things without argument to a term that has such nonsensical properties as “being outside time.”

So, I want to carefully keep track of that.

Derrida moves on to the relationship between spoken and written language.

In French, “differance” and “difference” have the same pronunciation. He spends far too long talking about how difficult it will be to talk about this, since he’ll have to indicate verbally “with an a” each time (this paper was originally a talk given to the Societe Francaise de Philosophie).

He next spends quite a bit of time explaining some very precise etymological concerns about the word differance:

But while bringing us closer to the infinitive and active core of differing, “differance” with an a neutralizes what the infinitive denotes as simply active, in the same way that “parlance” does not signify the simple fact of speaking, of speaking to or being spoken to.

This type of thing is a pretty silly game. He freaking made the word up! There is no etymology or historical context to analyze. It’s a pure fiction about the word. I hear the Derrida defenders here saying that this is precisely the point, because every word is made up and we play an etymological game to understand them.

Maybe, but I don’t really see what’s gained by presenting that idea in this way.

Derrida then recaps some of Saussure’s structuralist ideas about language: the signifyer / signified distinction. The word “chair” is a mere symbol that signifies an actual chair. The connection is arbitrary. We could easily make up a word like “cuilhseitornf” and have it symbolize the exact same thing. (All that was the Saussure recap).

Derrida wants to now say that actually it’s not so simple as Saussure thinks.

Words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to things (concepts, etc). In fact, meaning comes from being in a linguistic system, and the meaning of a word comes from understanding what the other words are not signifying. He wants to call this negative space “differance.” Again, I’m worried about how much we’re loading into this one made up word.

black and white book business close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But overall, if I clarify this point to a degree Derrida would probably hate, I’m somewhat sold on the concept.

Think about removing the word “chair” from the English language (i.e. a linguistic system). If you think about something that is different from all the remaining words, you’ll probably get something close to “chair,” because it’s partly defined by the differences between it and all the other words in the system. This seems an okay statement to make, if a little confusing as to its importance to theory.

Derrida introduces the concept of “trace” to make the above point. Basically the trace of a signifyer is the collection of all the sameness and differance left on it by the other words in the linguistic system.

Overall, I don’t get what real contribution this paper makes. To me, it is essentially a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s ideas about words in linguistic systems/games with a single, seemingly unnecessary, mystical layer that comes through the meta-concept of “differance.” Maybe if I were to read some of Derrida’s later work, it will become clearer why he needs this, but at this point I don’t get it.

Derrida is less confusing than I remember. He’s not hard to read because of obscurity or complex sentences or big words. He’s hard to read because he just meanders too much. There are entire pages that can be thrown out with nothing lost, because they are pure reiteration of minor tangential points.

Critical Postmodern Readings, Part 2: Finishing Lyotard

Last time we looked at the introduction to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. That introduction already contained much of what gets fleshed out in the rest of the short book, so I’m going to mostly summarize stuff until we hit anything that requires serious critical thought.

The first chapter goes into how computers have changed the way we view knowledge. It was probably an excellent insight that required argument at the time. Now it’s obvious to everyone. Humans used to gain knowledge by reading books and talking to each other. It was a somewhat qualitative experience. The nature of knowledge has shifted with (big) data and machine learning. It’s very quantitative. It’s also a commodity to be bought and sold (think Facebook/Google).

It is a little creepy to understand Lyotard’s prescience. He basically predicts that multinational corporations will have the money to buy this data, and owning the data gives them real-world power. He predicts knowledge “circulation” in a similar way to money circulation.  Here’s a part of the prediction:

The reopening of the world market, a return to vigorous economic competition, the breakdown of the hegemony of American capitalism, the decline of the socialist alternative, a probable opening of the Chinese markets …

Other than the decline of the socialist alternative (which seems to have had a recent surge), Lyotard has a perfect prediction of how computerization of knowledge actually affected the world in the 40 years since he wrote this.

Chapter two reiterates the idea that scientific knowledge (i.e. the type discussed above) is different than, and in conflict with, “narrative” knowledge.

There is also a legitimation “problem” in science. The community as a whole must choose gatekeepers seen as legitimate who decide what counts as scientific knowledge.

I’ve written about why I don’t see this as a problem like Lyotard does, but I’ll concede the point that there is a legitimation that happens, and it could be a problem if those gatekeepers change the narrative to influence what is thought of as true. There are even known instances of political biases making their way into schools of scientific thought (see my review of Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger).

Next Lyotard sets up the framework for thinking about this. He uses Wittgenstein’s “language game” concept. The rules of the game can never legitmate themselves. Even small modifications of the rules can greatly alter meaning. And lastly (I think this is where he differs from Wittgenstein), each speech act is an attempt to alter the rules. Since agreeing upon the current set of rules is a social contract, it is necessary to understand the “nature of social bonds.”

This part gets a little weird to me. He claims that classically society has been seen either as a unified whole or divided in two. The rules of the language games in a unified whole follow standard entropy (they get more complicated and chaotic and degenerate). The divided in two conception is classic Marxism (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Even if it gets a bit on the mumbo-jumbo side through this part, I think his main point is summarized by this quote:

For it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is—in other words, the problems its development and distribution are facing today—without knowing something of the society within which it is situated.

This doesn’t seem that controversial to me considering I’ve already admitted that certain powers can control the language and flow of knowledge. Being as generous as possible here, I think he’s just saying we have to know how many of these powers there are and who has the power and who legitimated that power before we can truly understand who’s forming these narratives and why.

In the postmodern world, we have a ton of different institutions all competing for their metanarrative to be heard.

Society is more fractured than just the two divisions of the modern world. But each of these institutions also has a set of rules for their language games that constrains them.  For example, the language of prayer has a different set of rules from an academic discussion at a university.

Chapters 7-9 seem to me to be where the most confusion on both the part of Lyotard and the reader can occur. He dives into the concept of narrative truth and scientific truth. You can already feel Lyotard try to position scientific truth to be less valuable than it is and narrative truth more valuable.

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Lyotard brings up the classic objections to verification and falsification (namely a variant on Hume’s Problem of Induction). How does one prove ones proof and evidence of a theory is true? How does one know the laws of nature are consistent across time and space? How can one say that a (scientific) theory is true merely because it cannot be falsified?

These were much more powerful objections in Lyotard’s time, but much of science now takes a Bayesian epistemology (even if they don’t admit to this terminology). We believe what is most probable, and we’re open to changing our minds if the evidence leads in that direction. I addressed this more fully a few years ago in my post: Does Bayesian Epistemology Suffer Foundational Problems?

… drawing a parallel between science and nonscientific (narrative) knowledge helps us understand, or at least sense, that the former’s existence is no more—and no less—necessary than the latter’s.

These sorts of statements are where things get tricky for me. I buy the argument that narrative knowledge is important. One can read James Baldwin and gain knowledge and empathy of a gay black man’s perspective that changes your life and the way you see the world.

Or maybe you read Butler’s performative theory of gender and suddenly understand your own gender expression in a new way. Both of these types of narrative knowledge could even be argued to be a “necessary” and vital part of humanity.

I also agree science is a separate type of knowledge, but I also see science as clearly more necessary than narrative knowledge.

If we lost all of James Baldwin’s writings tomorrow, it would be a tragedy. If we lost the polio vaccine tomorrow, it would be potentially catastrophic.

It’s too easy to philosophize science into this abstract pursuit and forget just how many aspects of your life it touches (your computer, the electricity in your house, the way you cook, the way you get your food, the way you clean yourself). Probably 80% of the developed world would literally die off in a few months if scientific knowledge disappeared.

I’ll reiterate that Lyotard thinks science is vastly important. He is in no way saying the problems of science are crippling. The above quote is more in raising narrative knowledge to the same importance of science than the devaluing of science (Lyotard might point to the disastrous consequences that happened as a result of convincing a nation of the narrative that the Aryan race is superior). For example, he says:

Today the problem of legitimation is no longer considered a failing of the language game of science. It would be more accurate to say that it has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force.

Anyway, getting back to the main point. Lyotard points out that problems of legitimating knowledge is essentially modern, and though we should be aware of the difficulties, we shouldn’t be too concerned with it. The postmodern problem is the grand delegitimation of various narratives (and one can’t help but hear Trump yell “Fake News” while reading this section of Lyotard).

Lyotard spends several sections developing a theory of how humans do science, and he develops the language of “performativity.”

It all seems pretty accurate to me, and not really worth commenting on (i.e. it’s just a description). He goes into the issues Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem caused for positivists. He talks about the Bourbaki group. He talks about the seeming paradox of having to look for counterexamples while simultaneously trying to prove the statement to be true.

I’d say the most surprising thing is that he gets this stuff right. You often hear about postmodernists hijacking math/science to make their mumbo-jumbo sound more rigorous. He brings up Brownian motion and modeling discontinuous phenomena with differentiable functions to ease analysis and how the Koch curve has a non-whole number dimension. These were all explained without error and without claiming they imply things they don’t imply.

Lyotard wants to call these unintuitive and bizarre narratives about the world that come from weird scientific and mathematical facts “postmodern science.” Maybe it’s because we’ve had over forty more years to digest this, but I say: why bother? To me, this is the power of science. The best summary I can come up with is this:

Narrative knowledge must be convincing as a narrative; science is convincing despite the unconvincing narrative it suggests (think of the EPR paradox in quantum mechanics or even the germ theory of disease when it was first suggested).

I know I riffed a bit harder on the science stuff than a graduate seminar on the book would. Overall, I thought this was an excellent read. It seems more relevant now than when it was written, because it cautions about the dangers of powerful organizations buying a bunch of data and using that to craft narratives we want to hear while deligitimating narratives that hurt them (but which might be true).

We know now that this shouldn’t be a futuristic, dystopian fear (as it was in Lyotard’s time). It’s really happening with targeted advertising and the rise of government propaganda and illegitimate news sources propagating our social media feeds. We believe what the people with money want us to believe, and it’s impossible to free ourselves from it until we understand the situation with the same level of clarity that Lyotard did.

Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.