A Language of the Ordinary, or the eLEET?

A Language of the Ordinary, or the eLEET?

2008-10-21
Was
Michael Joyce

Dave Ciccoricco reviews Michael Joyce’s novel of network culture, Was.
Seeing an inversion of Russian formalism in Joyce’s work, Ciccoricco explores how Joyce’s novel attempts to “reconcile the polylinguistic, stylistic, and ludic difficulty” of the text with an “affinity for the
quotidian.”

“If every link is a next, every memory is a was.”
- Michael Joyce, Othermindedness

Michael Joyce tends to avoid overstatement or overemphasis, and nowhere is this more true than in his characterizations of the World Wide Web. The Web - which he refers to as something that “our culture has slipped on … like a lonely guy slips on a T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe” (Othermindedness 52) - underwhelms him. A more expansive collection of these characterizations, many taken - in the true spirit of surfing and sampling - out of context, would include the WWW as something that “fills the sweet emptiness of space with static and keeps us static in the flow of time,” (Othermindedness 85); something that “is all edges and not much depth and for a writer that is trouble,” (187); “a rhetoric of an empty room, the eye listening for a voice, the ear seeking a shadow” (52); “a series of documents, the most of which … could be printed out in sheaves and baled in a warehouse” (Moral Tales, 96); and, as something that “doesn’t work. The web, the Memex, the mind. We all forget and are forgotten” (Othermindedness 224). His understatedness extends to a typographical affectation that involves discussing both the “world wide web” and the “internet” only in lowercase, as if this would somehow denude its singular, monolithic authority. The case is the same, so to speak, in the subtitle of his latest print novel, Was: annales nomadique, a novel of internet. The lack of a definite article here also suggests that this may not even be a novel of the Internet at all. That what we are dealing with is instead a generic state of interconnectedness, relations (social, literary, cosmic perhaps) that exist between, among, or within a bounded structure or space, an “internet” more evocative of Indra than Berners-Lee. The title is not necessarily disingenuous, it’s just that something else is going on here, something that arises from rampant polyglottism and a disjunctive language that coheres only in what Joyce would call the “flow of remembered time” (Moral Tales 136). Ultimately what resides in Joyce’s Was are meditations - residual as they may be - on the foreign and the familiar and, more specifically, how the relationship between them is recast in network culture.

wURLd of Was

Was is a dense, challenging work, not least for its extensive use of foreign language names, places, and conversations (readers encounter French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Hungarian in the space of the first three pages). There are no sentences and no paragraphs per se, no punctuation to signal “stop” and “go,” just a movement from line to line, scene to scene. In one scene, an Indonesian grandfather and former pirate smokes with his grandson on the beach at Buyat Bay:

Tjipo lights a Marlboro but refuses to give the boy one so Paku pulls out his own pack of Djurum and lights one, the clove smells good to the old man and so they trade (94)

In the next, we are circuitously introduced to a librarian from Indiana who has gone to the Middle East to take a position at the “Ramallah Friends School”:

9 mos post secondary school library position interview at RFS turned back after detention and questioning Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, flew back to Indiana to await reentry (96)

Moments such as these constitute the highest degree of narrativity present in the text; that is, the degree to which it can be read and understood as a story. In fact, even though the work is blurbed as “half-poem, half-narrative,” readers who are preparing for a story will find themselves chasing narrative coherence with all the grace of someone chasing a missed bus.

In his review of Was, Thomas Hove writes that “Joyce seems to be conveying the constant nomadicity and ‘global creolization’ that characterize the experience of websurfing” (Hove n.d.). Experientially, readers are continually hurried along as if by an invisible yet most inconvenient usher, taken away from people and places often already distanced from us because of their unfamiliar language just after or just as they started to make sense. But there is also the sense that what we are reading is quite unlike anything that could be produced by a bout of web surfing, be it casual or concerted. I am reminded here of the live bulletin ticker that displays web search queries typed into a major search engine, a technical device that provides the rhetorical device for the opening of one of Stuart Moulthrop’s essays. Moulthrop discusses the ticker as an index of “web culture,” while acknowledging that for some the very notion of “web culture” would be a contradiction in terms. Joyce’s nomadic history is not an adorned or aestheticized version of a collective web search. Instead, it seems that Was is a work that aspires to bring us to all the places the WWW cannot, yet with all the same speed, discontinuity, and happenstance. One might characterize such places as reflective, ruminative, emotive, or simply more human than what the Web affords. However one chooses to describe them, they are no doubt characterized by the transcendent experience of offline worlds.

Nevertheless, any novel that positions “the fleetingness of information” as its “main character” (jacket blurb) certainly suggests a direct engagement with - and comment on - digital communication technologies and how they pervade our daily lives. In this formulation, however, the emphasis would fall on fleetingness; information, or at least the globalizing entities that contain it, becomes an afterthought. For example, another passage in the text, set in South Africa, carries on from a description of a young girl (age 17) who was one of the three (from 39) killed when her team’s netball bus “went over the N1 south of Bloemfontein” (117). At the funeral, her thick-necked rugby player boyfriend, “choking in unaccustomed necktie,” shows the mother of his beloved deceased the coordinates of her gravesite in his portable GPS satellite device. Her reply: “can you enter her age there, perhaps make it blink? shall we make a web page?” (118). Fleetingness plays a leading role indeed, while digital information technology is a vital support, mostly silent but ever-present. Not unlike Hamlet’s Horatio, who does very little directly but somehow holds everything together with his constant there-ness.

In this respect, Joyce’s novel departs from his previous one, Liam’s Going, which does not embrace the ethos of “information narratives” in N. Katherine Hayles’ use of the term; it resists the pull of techno-culture by eliding it, even displacing it in the non-digital technologies of the Hudson River.As noted in an ebr review of Liam’s Going, the only explicit mention of the technology of digital culture appears in passing, in the opening scene, with the title character sitting next to his mother in the car with his “ears plugged with black foam inserts.” In that same review, Joyce’s conception of the Hudson River as “the first network in America” is discussed. At the same time, and despite all the obvious differences of the two works with regard to style and narrativity, there is a significant continuity between them that is rooted in a preoccupation with the “ordinary.” For Joyce, the concept of “ordinary fiction” draws together affirming notions of the quotidian and the recurrent (which might otherwise take on vaguely negative connotations) and locates meaning in the momentary - or amid a play of evaporating moments. The project of creating fiction that speaks to the shifting complexities of everyday lives came about with Joyce’s work in digital environments, and was encouraged in part by his own frustrated attempts at finding anything satisfying there, namely in the nascent years of the Web. The search did not get easier as the ecommerce machine rolled in, causing more than its share of traffic jams as it tried to collect a toll on every stretch of the information superhighway. Joyce reveals his nostalgia for “the early days of the web, some few moments ago, when the force of its presence was a largesse, a haphazard weave of idiosyncratic ‘home’ pages, naïve graphics, and cobbled together texts ranging from refrigerator maintenance manuals to dubious editions of Shakespeare…” (Othermindedness 205-6). But he also acknowledges that it probably could not have been any other way - that calls for “quality” can ultimately result in new versions of the familiar problems of canons, control, and cultural hegemony.

It would appear on the surface that the Web would be the ultimate source for art that honors the everyday - a veritable encyclopedia of the quotidian. But for Joyce, this map of the everyday has grown larger than its territory: “the net dislodges the quotidian and diurnal by occupying it in every sense of that word, filling space and time alike” (137). Regardless of what medium one uses to map it, however, the very concept of fiction that attends to ordinary lives inevitably houses a contradiction, for were it not for the artists who render the ordinary - who make it artful - these moments would not live and breathe in fiction. They are, in effect, being pre-remembered and framed, artfully, by the writer for the reader. This is a contradiction inherent in any literature that aspires to be literature of the everyday, whether we are dealing with the “common language” of a Wordsworth poem or the crude pathos of a Harvey Pekar comic. But Joyce’s novel supports another, more intriguing contradiction, one that is internal to its shifting walls: how can a text so concerned with the ordinary be constructed with such extraordinary and - at times - esoteric language?

Langue numérique

The use of foreign language in poetry and fiction is a recognizable trait of Modernist writing. In his “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (1913), Pound advises, “Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement.” Here, the poet grants privilege to movement over meaning, a relatively unproblematic proposition in contemporary poetry studies. And Joyce’s Was, with its vanishing stages and tireless leaps of place, surely embodies this ideal of movement.

Another effect of polyglot writing is alienating the (“common”) reader and elevating the writer - in a word, elitism. And even though there are exceptions and variations, especially based on the language in question (Hemingway’s brand of Spanish, for instance, was arguably more a show of solidarity with its native speakers), Modernist difficulty was openly advocated by its writers. Pound was comfortable leading that charge, and in his pre-Imagiste poem “In Durance,” he writes: “I am homesick after mine own kind / And ordinary people touch me not” (Collected Early Poems 86). Joyce’s attitude toward the “ordinary” clearly differs from Pound’s. But how do we reconcile the polylinguistic, stylistic, and ludic difficulty of Was with its affinity for the quotidian?

The answer, like so many other answers these days, lies in the web - or rather, emerges as a byproduct of the web’s existence. Joyce’s prototypically Modernist technique ultimately achieves something different in a digital culture where formerly distant languages and cultures are today, in effect, as far away as the nearest Internet connection. There are websites now in just about every language - both alive and dead - known to humankind, and websites devoted to saving the rest. That’s not to mention all manner of online translation tools and dictionaries, downloadable language learning courses, or social networking sites and virtual gameworlds that are used for all array of cross-cultural communion if not foreign language learning per se. In his panoramic essay on present day Latvia, “Riga Under Western Eyes,” Joseph Tabbi writes, “The possibility is real that in a generation or two Latvian will not be heard in Latvia’s capital city, in any month of the year.” But the fact is that you will no doubt still see it in the Web.

Of course, this odd cultural repository ultimately changes what it contains. In general, languages lose their subtlety and specificity as they are continually removed from place and context (a process also addressed by Tabbi in his essay with regard to the far reaches of the English language); and clearly, they are further displaced and decontextualized in network culture. Despite it being a novel that so often makes it difficult to sum things up, Was offers some unambiguous summations and equations on the matter. One of these (an equation in both the literal and typographical sense) appears early on in the text, and provides a strong suggestion of how and why foreign language is deployed throughout: “global creolization = URL” (12). Was thus bears witness to such linguistic displacement and decontextualization, even if it appears at times too impartial to what it sees.

The novel is perhaps more concerned with how the digital apparatus is transforming our everyday relationship to language - often simplifying it in complex ways. At one point in the novel, a young girl visits her wheelchair-bound and mentally infirm mother in a rest home in Hong Kong:

in her purse a five inch by two inch electronic translator with 28 languages including phonetic hebrew, arabic, chinese, japanese, korean, thai, and indonesian over 580,000 words (20,000 per language) and 58,000 useful phrases, 8 currency conversions and 6 metric conversions, world time in 200 cities and calculator on 2 line x 14 character LCD display (114)

Indeed, this “novel of internet” is also a novel of inter-nation; it offers what Thea Pitman (2007) in her essay on Latin American hypertext, describes as a “complex site of negotiation between the global and the local.” But it further demonstrates the extent to which “foreign” languages, from the socio-culturally sophisticated to the obscure, are now encoded in the material trappings of the everyday.

Knot so Gordian

If the purpose of art (after Shklovsky) is to impede our perception of the familiar by making it artful and calling our attention to it, then Joyce’s novel (after the Web) inverts this formula somewhat, calling our attention to the familiarity and proximity of the foreign, albeit no less artfully. That is, the foreign becomes ordinary in a novel of [the] internet. Granted, social hierarchies abound in the Web, and it is capable of accommodating cultural elitism under new names. In pragmatic terms, those who are fortunate enough to be enfranchised by the Web are only so proportionally according to their broadband capability. And thinkers from Lawrence Lessig to William Mitchell have emphasized the authoritative role of code and coders in cyberspace, paving the way for a new form of elitism. There are others, hackers and gamers among them, who cultivate elitist enclaves that are exclusive to network culture. The same network culture has given rise to its own supra-national language: “Leetspeak” or “Leet.” Arguably more cipher or code than language, Leetspeak uses combinations of the ASCII character set in place of letters, and the substitution bears a visual resemblance; LEET, for example, is rendered as “1337,” and the language goes by this name and variations of it. The term itself comes from the word “elite,” and reflects the language’s origins.

There are several creation narratives, including its early use as an adjective to describe those with access to the inner sanctum of Bulletin Board Systems and its riches; a method for hackers to protect their wares from unwanted eyes; and an expression to mark one’s gaming prowess. But it would seem incongruous to equate these forms of elitism - arising from the teeming populism of the Web - with a new cultural and artistic vanguard. (Even the term “digerati” tends to be reserved for those with technical proficiency, which has amounted to wealth or influence in the computer industry, even though one half of its portmanteau implies literary intellect). And if you could, it would simply demonstrate the extent to which the rules of this game have changed.

Leetspeak is, appropriately, one of the many languages that feature in Was, if only in this one line:

w15h1n6 |4n6u463 w3r3 4 kn07

With some rudimentary Leetspeak ciphering (it’s all rudimentary actually), readers understand this jumble of numbers and letters as: “wishing language were a knot.” The same line appears on the previous page, in its Latinate form, albeit with a question mark at its end.

There are probably many ways in which language can be thought of as a knot, but likely only one in which it literally becomes one. Of all the large scale organized societies with evolved bureaucratic systems and governance, the Inca Empire is often described as the only one to be assembled and administered without writing. The Incas speak Quechua, a language still spoken by roughly a third of the Peruvian population. But they did have a method of materially encoding information, whether it was census data or cultural narrative, by using a system of knotted ropes, often multi-colored, attached to a longer anchoring rope. These linguistic knots were called khipu (also quipu). Many were lost after the fall of the Inca Empire in the 16th century, either hidden by Incas or destroyed by the Spanish for their potentially idolatrous import. For those khipu that were recovered, it was debated whether or not they could be considered as a form of writing, a “three-dimensional binary code” unlike any other form of writing on Earth, or rather a form of personalized accounting or recording, that is, a mnemonic device (Mann 2003). Whatever the case may be, to this day, no one knows exactly how to decode them. The Incan language knot has come full circle in digital culture: in 2006 Microsoft released a Quechua version of its ubiquitous Windows operating system in Bolivia and Peru (Keane). In place of the word “File” in the familiar drop down menu, users of the Quechua interface will instead see “kipu,” a direct reference to their ancient practice of information systems. A positive step in preserving a language and culture, one wonders nonetheless how long it will take for the khipu of a computer operating system to eclipse its original meaning.

Even though the reference to this most intricate form of ordinary communication and inscription is oblique and in passing, the concept applies generally to the entire fabric of Joyce’s own text: it underscores the complex relationship between language, code, and the materials that enable and support them. Although Joyce’s Was will alienate some readers, others will find satisfaction in grappling with its knots. All in all, it is a work that is impelled not by the Web itself, but rather in the atomic traces of humanity we can find within it, without it, before it was there, and after it is gone. And it might just be a khipu befitting of the digital age.

Works Cited

Ciccoricco, David. “What Remains in Liam’s Going.” electronic book review 2003. 1 May 2008

Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: the Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

—. Moral Tales and Meditations: technological parables and refractions. Albany: State U of New York P, 2001.

—. Was: annales nomdique, a novel of internet. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2007.

Keane, Dan. “Bolivia Debuts Windows in Incan Tongue.” USA Today Online. 25 Aug. 2006. 1 May 2008

Mann, Charles. “Cracking the Khipu Code.” Science: 1650-51.

Moulthrop, Stuart. 2000. “The View From Narrative Space or, Culture at Critical Mass.” New Media, New Literacies - Xerox PARC, August 25, 2000.

Pitman, Thea, eds. “Hypertext in Context: Space and Time in Latin American Hypertext and Hypermedia Fictions.” Dichtung Digital: New Perspectives on Digital Literature Ed. Astrid Ensslin and Alice Bell: 1 May 2008

Pound, Ezra. “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” Poetry Mar. 1913. 1 May 2008

—. The Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound. Ed. Michael John King. New York: New Directions, 1976.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession 91 (1991): 33-40.

Tabbi, Joseph. “Riga Under Western Skies.” electronic book review 2006. 1 May 2008