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Books in Brief: The Nocilla Trilogy

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The Nocilla trilogy is strange. It feels familiar in the way the internet does. The first two books are told in a similar style: they present about a page of text in the third person about a person struggling with their relationship to something or someone—typically something, manifested through their relationship with someone. I can’t claim to understand them in any overarching or systematic way. They seem like they present a vision of our relationship to allegory and metaphor while playing in a space that feels similar to 2666, in the sense that if we can’t have a coherent narrative or present a singular story we all rally behind we can still have something. It builds on that, even though the author admits to never having read it, though there is a character who airs out his theorems on clotheslines much like a character in Bolaño’s novel airs out a geometry book on a clothesline. We spend time in both books thinking about what this means to the character and to us as readers, and I’m not really sure we get super far in a way I can set down definitively, though the experience is interesting, if not enlightening.

The last book, Nocilla Lab, is where things change. The form changes suddenly: the first part is a single 64-page sentence. I liked this part a lot, though it was challenging to read because the style of the previous books remained: nearly but not quite verse, but set in prose. I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but it plays with form and representation and metaphor in a way few pieces of media do.

There are parts I don’t like. I don’t like how most of the characters are men, how there’s a kind of universality to the phallocentrism of all the narratives, even the ones about women. I don’t like how in one case, a character offers a terrible description of a fat woman after she chides him for smoking in a non-smoking area. (The author loves cigarettes more than almost anything. This comes through clearly in every book.) This character offers a page of beautiful description and metaphor and inference about how terrible this woman is, how she embodies all that is bad in humanity, &c but does not turn his critical lens on himself and both what he was doing to prompt the rebuke and what his own behavior means in the context of what he’s discussing. Perhaps that’s kind of the point. It’s a good writer that can make me continue to read a book after I loathe parts of a character.

These books are absolutely worth your time.

Books in Brief: Kafka on the Shore

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Kafka on the Shore was one of those books I fought with until about three-quarters of the way through, when the wind was at my back and we started sailing and everything was smooth and beautiful. I started reading it on the recommendation of some friends online, who thankfully didn’t tell me anything about it, other than that if I wanted something light and liked magical realism, I should read it, or if I wanted something dark and moody, I should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. So I chose light.

“Magical Realism” is a frustrating category to slot something into, because it’s never clear what that means in the context of the book. Does that mean that our grip on inductive inference and causality slips a little bit and has some slack to flap around in the wind? Or does it mean that descriptions of things are to be taken more as metaphor and less as objective truth? Or does it mean the author has given up on creating a fully cohesive and linear narrative and is throwing scenes and descriptions and people at the page to try to communicate something they couldn’t communicate otherwise. (As a wise reader once said, Tolstoy had some ideas and tried to explain them to his neighbors, who didn’t understand, so he went off and wrote a book about a lady and train safety to say what he couldn’t say directly.)

Kafka on the Shore falls into the last category here, I think. But that was only apparent after reading most of the book. In the beginning I was frustrated by the protagonist Kafka and his teenage logic and over-reliance on values of toughness, strength, and solitude. I think that was just good writing, rather than some seepage from the author through the page. That relationship continued through most of the book, where someone or something would bubble up and I would get frustrated with their description, or what they said, or how they described something else. (I still think describing Price playing in the background as “like a mollusk in your head” is either a translation error or an artifact of the kind of popular literati writing between 1995–2005.)

Perhaps the first three-quarters of the book are the setup I needed to get in the headspace where the last quarter could do its work, where it does become a world of loose categories and concepts, of nonlinear time, of impressions and scattered paint. If this book makes sense in a way that can be written down and described linearly then I missed that. But I don’t think that’s an important part of the experience of reading it.

All of the following was written before I read the last quarter. It’s still relevant, but I like the book more and have warm and gentle feelings with it. There are still some ambiguities, and some expressions in the face of death and change that I disagree with, or think maybe are against my experiences and lessons with those things, but I liked the book and will more readily some of his other work.

It’s a confusing book. There are rapes abound, but it’s all washed up in this person being a representation of this memory, or maybe not, or whatever, and it’s a big psychosexual mess. In one sense that makes it exciting as a kind of vague representational poem, so I like it for that, but on the other hand, this lady rapes this kid, this kid rapes this other woman in a dream, but it’s real(?), there’s cat murder, but maybe it was metaphorical, or not, and there are embodied concepts that show up as people and act in the world. It’s not a consistent book but it’s not supposed to be. It’s interesting. Some of the descriptions, though, are really… bad. It’s a kind of writing that flourished between 1995 and 2005, and came in the tail-end of that trend: “Prince sings on, like some mollusk in your head.” I don’t understand Kafka’s why, why he’s doing most of the things he’s doing in the book. I very much like the “discussions” with the boy named Crow, and the turn from first-person to second-person in some places. (Nightvale’s The Story of You is one of the better things written this decade.) All in all I enjoyed it and it certainly evoked a reaction in me throughout, where I was talking to the book, asking it what the fuck was going on, expressing disappointment in this or that character, asking the author why this was happening after that happened. That’s a good sign, even if the book didn’t sign to me like a chorus of angels like Moby Dick or Swann’s Way. What I don’t like is the ambiguity between the author-as-character and the author and the character. Kafka’s written as this kind of old soul but is still a petulant little kid. There’s almost no discussion of masculinity or the toxicity present in Kafka’s actions as a man. That’s frustrating, but perhaps it’s an expectation of me and the time we’re in and the place I am in my life, where I look back at myself at that age and think mostly about what an utter fuck I was as a result of those expectations.

Me, rambling before finishing it.

“To My Fellow White Others”

The need to unpack our power and privilege in moments of pain and hurt is counterintuitive to most of us. We rightly want to sit in the pain of being targeted. But holding our own pain cannot come at the expense of obscuring the machinations of power that keep us safe even as we are Othered. And when we inevitably turn to the legal system for redress for our pain, we must there too recognize how we are serving a system that is designed to benefit us as white people. 

To My Fellow White Others” by Chase Strangio

This is required reading. This will be in history books.

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

This is another entry in what I’ve come to think of as “Craig Mod books,” reflections on walking and what that activity does to thought through the body. I initially read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust on his recommendation from that essay and loved it. It treated walking as something with a history, with many purposes in time and in different cultures, and treated those purposes with respect and a genuine criticality that reflected the impossibility of covering as broad a concept as “walking” in a book only a couple hundred pages long.

Continue reading “A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros”

Cloudy Logic

To pass the social system off as an objective artifact determined by (quasi-) scientific processes, forecasting has to scapegoat “irresponsible” individuals for failing to live up to the terms of the forecast. Adorno writes that “the constant appeal of the column to find fault with oneself rather than with given conditions” is evidence of “the implicit but ubiquitous rule that one has to adjust oneself continuously to commands of the stars at a given time.” When forecasts end up being inaccurate, the fault lies not in the prediction methodology but the individual’s failure to adjust to the forecaster’s advice.

This piece by Robin James calls out big data through the lens of Adorno’s critique of astrology. “Big data doesn’t forecast the future but remakes the present in the image of down-to-earth stereotypes.” It gives a voice to a lot of feelings I’ve felt that push against not just the privacy angle, but having to do with casting narratives about people. It reminded me of how at one point in the history of psychology there was a debate about whether academic psychology was concerned with individuals or populations. In as much as that ship has sailed, it is nearly myopic in its concern with groups. Which is to say: it is not a deductive inference to move from generalizations about a group to an individual. Nor is it even necessarily a transductive inference, but an inductive one. That debate was settled long ago: the focus is on groups, because that’s more descriptive. But the movements of big data, modeling, and forecasting have started swinging the pendulum in the other direction. Anyway. It’s a very good article.

Also, I clapped out loud when I read this, about the self-tracking movement and how it becomes a kind of imperative to fixing oneself rather than highlighting problems to be addressed collectively:

Adorno explains how this can seem empowering but really isn’t: “The idea that the stars, if only one reads them correctly, offer some advice mitigates the very same fear of the inexorability of social processes the stargazer himself creates.” It reinforces the neoliberal myth of individual responsibility for social problems and misdirects our attention toward dumbed-down superficial solutions to complex social problems. For example, framing problems of political economy, class, and race as an “obesity epidemic” assumes both that obesity is a problem and that it is a problem that can be solved by modifying individual behavior (diet, exercise).

This gets at something I rarely hear talked about and never hear from people focused on the technological side of things.

This Cup is Broken

I dropped my father’s cup today.

My dad died when I was eight. I would get up before him, make a breakfast of bagels or toast and chocolate milk, and watch cartoons. He would come downstairs and go for a run, come back, shower and make coffee. He’d drink it out of one of a few mugs, all of a similar size, and most of which I still have. He had good taste in art, and his mugs were handmade and hand-painted by local potters. They’re irreplaceable.

There’s an old story about a Zen monk who had a favorite cup. It was beautiful and prized, and he enjoyed showing it to temple visitors. He used it for everything, all the while saying out loud, “This cup is broken.” When at last he dropped the cup, he wasn’t surprised. He repeated, “This cup is broken.”

Today my grip faltered when I grabbed one of my father’s mugs. It fell, hit the rim of the sink, rolled, and fell to the ceramic tile floor. I knew what was going to happen. I said, in the quick voice that makes no sound and forms no words, “This cup is broken.”

It bounced, rolled, and was stopped by its handle. If anything it scratched the tile. I picked it up, and as I placed it in the cupboard, said, “This cup is broken.”

An Honest Productivity Hack

The world is full of nonsense, but here’s a slice of sanity including something you can buy. I’m writing this note to myself because I used it to finish proof-reading my dissertation, a task I find nigh impossible.

Write down all of the things you have to do that aren’t written down in a systematic way. Write them on a piece of paper. Or write them on index cards. Write until your brain feels empty. You can write down feelings or theories too.

Read The Enchiridion. It is short. You can read it all right now. It will help you find solid ground from which to lift. If you want more like this, read this translation of The Meditations.

Now do something with everything you wrote down. Evaluate it. If you can do it in less than two minutes, do it when you read it. Otherwise put it somewhere. Doesn’t matter where. Stacking up the index cards is just fine. Throw away or cross out the things that aren’t important. Save your feelings and theories somewhere. It’s important to reflect on those, if only as a map to see how far you’ve come through time.

Now you have a list of the things you have to do that are hard. Pick one. Now break it up, either on paper or in your head, into a list of actions in the world you need to take to complete it.

Download Forest. Set the timer for 25 minutes. Do what it says.

Don’t work more than three hours unless you feel possessed by flow and momentum.

From time to time, do the whole thing again. That’s it.

Which task manager or notes app you use matters so much less than the process by which you do things. Process matters. Your notes app and task manager matter only to the extent that they mesh with your process. (It is worth spending some time finding the right fit, but don’t confuse this quest with any kind of productivity. I find it relaxing and intellectually simulating to evaluate task managers; I’m searching for the right amount of complexity, visual presentation, and ergonomics. I’m far from finding one.)

Also, it’s nice to take time and write to yourself.

Writing 250,000 Words

I’ve written over 250,000 words since the middle of 2016 when I started journaling every morning. That doesn’t include the six months I spent writing 150 A5 pages in a physical journal, which I gave up because I wasn’t writing as much, nor accessing the kinds of truths and insights that come from writing near the speed of thought, bucking self-censorship or rewriting in my head, and charging forward to the next thought or feeling and giving it shape and constraint in language. I like writing with pens because it slows me down and forces me to focus on expressing myself well. But that’s not quite what’s needed in the morning when thoughts are still nebulous and unaligned with the day’s tasks or past.

What will I do with all these words I’ve made? I occasionally think of drawing from them to create articles or more formalized writings, but really they exist as a record of my reasonings with myself. It takes a lot of reflection to know whether something is happening because it should be happening, because you really want it to happen, or because the wagon is riding through deep ruts and the weight of habit is a blanket of unexamined comfort we hesitate to shed. Writing in the morning doesn’t always sort this out, nor does it often unveil such clarities, but when it does it is like meditation, or a funeral for a bad decision, or laying rich soil over a withered garden.

In this exercise, I write for myself, save for this that you are reading now. This feels somehow greedy, like a dragon hoarding its treasure, or a beetle scooting its ball of dung. Which is why I’m working to write more, to share more, to leave more open my shared self. When I was a child I had a terrible problem with believing everyone had the same education and knew the same things I did. This meant that when someone asked a question, especially a technical one, I thought of them as idiots, forgetting how I’d learned everything I knew, which was through patient questions and answers from other kids, adults, and books, and eventually the internet. My incredulity was cruel, because so much of our society is predicated on shame, and I could with a glance bring shame to an adult. (How do you exist without knowing how to use computers? How can you have a job without knowing how to edit the registry?) I soon came to realize that instead of invoking shame I could evoke money, and had to learn how to treat people decently and with patience while lubricated by money. My eagerness to help people spread, without the money, when I saw over and over how the delight of empowerment radiated from someone who learned how to do something to help themselves, for good. This is an important facet of education, and I’m somewhat suspicious of people involved in it without this kind of a story of revelation. But perhaps it is a fiction I tell myself, and it is the lesser of my two stories of educational revelation, the second being the jarring juxtaposition of freedoms and learning between my Montessori elementary school with my public middle school.

Anyway. It feels good to write, and the thing that holds me back from sharing my writing is half craft, and half shame, and the shame part, for lack of craft, is representative of the part of society that needs to wither, like the garden, replaced by honest words.

Is Everyone Lying?

One of the things about that book, Authority, is that makes the case, to me at least, that people are basically lying, or if not lying, misrepresenting themselves as experts, as people worthy of attention. But I’m coming to realize that that’s okay; it’s nearly impossible to fight against anyhow. Not everyone who shares something has to be an expert in their field. Not everyone who writes a tutorial for something has to do it as a retrospective; it’s much easier to write a tutorial while working on the very thing the tutorial is about as a kind of more formalized note-taking that’s just shared with a bit of narrative framing. That’s not bad.

But coming from academia, and the particular aggressive and ultimately bad argumentative style that was inculcated in me at Indiana University’s cognitive science program, I have the instinct to say with chest forward, “Who are you to make such proclamations?” But who am I to make such proclamations? If someone wants to talk about learning, I can say “what you are saying is not backed up by the literature.” I can even appeal to authority a little bit and just say “no, that’s wrong, it’s a lot of effort for me to go through and get citations for you but I’m saying as someone who has been in graduate school in learning science for eight years that you are wrong.”

I worry about the very authority of the source, now, after reading that book. I worry the blog post I’m reading was written by someone who doesn’t understand the best way of teaching what they’re teaching, who doesn’t have a sense of the bigger picture, who isn’t intentionally introducing concepts here and holding them back there. I worry about this doubly when I read that the blog post’s author has a book on the subject.

But that’s okay. We’re all grasping at shadows in a dark room.

© 2020 Jordan T. Thevenow-Harrison, all rights reserved.