Monday, 27 August 2012

Many Subtle Channels: A Review

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication of Raymond Queneau’s thought-provoking and I would argue, feeling-invoking, work, Exercices de Style. Presenting the same very basic story in 99 different ways, Queneau’s work is quite breathtaking, as much so to me now as when I first encountered the work as an undergraduate. This is all that happens: A person witnesses a young man with a small head and long neck wearing a hat grumble as he is jostled by other passengers on a very full bus. The young man quickly takes a seat when it becomes available. Later, from the window of another bus, the person sees the same young man listening to an acquaintance who is recommending that he add a button to his raincoat. That’s it – but, my, my, the range of thoughts, and associations, and emotions one can have reading the different versions. I laughed out loud when reading the “Interjections” version, wondered at the connections between the world and equations that can describe it when reading “Geometric”, and felt the uncertainty that one might feel toward things one thought one was certain about when reading “Hesitation”.

The new book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (2012), by Daniel Levin Becker examines the birth and development of a group of mostly writers and mathematicians who have taken it upon themselves to create and explore such linguistic feats and myriad more through the laboratory of textual experimentation known as the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Workshop for Potential Literature,” later known as Oulipo (oo-lee-poh). The book is largely a history of the group from its origin, at a colloquium in 1960 dedicated to Queneau, to the present. There have only ever been 38 people “co-opted” into the group, and only a dozen currently active – that is, presenting readings to the public, attending meetings, or conducting workshops for others interested in what happens when combinatorial mathematics meets fiction- and poetry-writing. Levin Becker, himself one of the newest members of the Oulipo, gives this history a detailed treatment, including situating a great number of the members’ published fiction and poetry both within and without the Oulipo literary environment.

The goal of Oulipo has from the beginning been to counter the model of the production of literature as “ecstatic intuition” (p. 80), and to offer instead the model of the writer’s absolute adherence to whatever preconceived constraint or procedure she or he has decided to allow to structure the work in process. For anyone who has participated in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project, you have had a little taste of what such strict adherence to such a constraint can have on fiction-writing. We get the clearest idea of the enormous variety of Oulipian constraints in the first third of Levin Becker’s book in which he describes the week he spent at an Oulipian “constrained-writing immersion course” (p. 92) in Bourges, France. Variations such as Queneau’s exercises would seem like a comfortably spacious constraint compared to some the author became aware of and, in some cases, was required to produce for the course: Writing a dialogue in film titles; “monovocalism,” a text allowing only one type of vowel to be used; “lipograms” in which one letter of the alphabet is methodically not included in the work; “métro poem”, in which a line of poetry must be thought up between two stops on the subway, but can only be written during the stop itself, and one line for each stop on one’s trip must be in evidence by the end of the trip; the “perverb” (p. 94) which amalgamates the beginning of one proverb to the end of another; “tautograms” in which all words begin with the same letter; “pangrams” containing all letters in the alphabet; the “apéro”, in which no word may be included that does not alternate a vowel with a consonant in one-to-one ratio; the "S + 7" "where each noun is replaced by the seventh noun following it in a given dictionary" (p. 54); as well as many others, too complicated to explain here, such as the “morale élémentaire” (p. 58), the “prisoner’s constraint” (p. 96), and the “beau présent” (p. 4).

Levin Becker treats a number of questions that arise from such linguistic pursuits, such as: Should Oulipian authors feel themselves obliged to reveal the undergirding constraints that gave birth to a particular work?; Should Oulipians be taken to task for their quite consistent political disengagement?; and What is the relationship between “creative writing” and “creative reading” (p. 300)? I found this book an engaging read, and a quite rich contextualization for all of the feelings I had experienced in reading Queneau’s Exercices de Style years ago and more recently. A contextualization, yes, but an explanation, no. The one question that never gets asked here is “Do the constraints under which the writer worked influence the quantity or quality of emotions the reader experiences while reading the finished product?” Levin Becker’s lack of discussion of feeling in the context of the Oulipian project is quite a gaping hole, it seems to me. It can be fun to follow a novel through suspenseful twists and turns and through tenuously connected associations, admiring the rich linguistic maneuvers, but in the end, might the Oulipians, not too concerned it seems with what the reader might be feeling, have worked themselves out of a job?

Daniel Levin Becker (2012). Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.  

Raymond Queneau (1947). Exercices de style. Paris: Editions Gallimard. 
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Monday, 20 August 2012

Borrowed Books: Reading Previous Readers

A lot of the books I read come from the public library. It seems to me that different readers have different levels of feelings of possession concerning library books. Some readers are quite aware that the books are not theirs and treat them with extreme care, never writing in them, dog-earing them, or putting a pencil marker in them to hold their place. Others feel that for those two weeks that book belongs to them. They write in it, dog-ear it, inadvertently crack the spine, carry it open in their backpack, rubber band it open, cut out interesting photos, highlight it, underline whole paragraphs, cut out sections, and use it as scrap paper in their travels. 

It occurred to me recently that it might be worth looking more closely at what traces left by previous readers on these books might do to the reading experience of subsequent readers. I would hypothesize that readers of fiction in particular would experience an altered cognitive and emotional connection with the imaginary world depicted in the presence of such traces. Indeed, as creatures hyper-attentive to social presence, intentions, and perspectives, people would likely process such traces as intentional, though not directed to a particular individual in this context. Such traces, no matter how small, I propose, should influence reader engagement in fiction. Here are some questions that might be interesting to look into:

  • Sometimes the anonymous previous reader will make some involved notes early in the text, but then completely disappear from view. But once the reader is aware of that earlier reader, wouldn’t she or he be expecting to see later traces from that reader? If so, what does that expectation do for the current reader? Similarly, wouldn’t there be a bit of a shock if you’ve come near the end of a novel and just then appear notes or markings made by a previous reader?  Of course, readers of borrowed books are aware that others have read the books they are reading, but what is it like to suddenly become aware of the markings of some particular, though still anonymous, reader after you’ve felt yourself to be alone with the characters for all that time? Would either circumstance substantially influence cognitive and emotional engagement with the story and characters?
  • Some readers like to make notes in the margins. How might these notes to the previous reader from himself or herself influence the reading experience of the present reader? Would they just provide informational content or would they trigger imagined interpersonal dynamics between that earlier reader and the present one? Might the present reader feel herself to be threatened by a perceived greater knowledge base of the previous reader, or perhaps superior to him or her on the same grounds? Might the current reader have feelings, thoughts, or memories about the ideas inscribed there? To what extent would such interpersonal attention to the previous reader enhance or diminish the fiction reading experience?
  • A more basic question: is there any relationship between the extent of the marginalia and its influence on the reader? Could a simple “X” or “NB” in the margin be more influential than more involved notes? Perhaps the greater mystery of the characteristics of the previous reader is more engaging the less information inscribed there.
  • Of course, previous readers need not be anonymous. One could ask any of these questions in the context of a known previous reader as well. And reading one’s own earlier notes to novels and short stories can be quite an interesting experience. Does such reading contribute in any way to the reader’s reflection on the changing course of his or her emotional responses, changing opinions, and memories evoked by the text? Or do readers read them without considering their earlier selves in any engaged or meaningful way?
There is no doubt a number of reasons why scored books sell for much, much less than unscored books. Might the answers to some of the questions above partially account for readers’ strong preference not to be placed in the imagined presence of other previous readers? It seems to me that these questions and others in the same line would be very much worth pursuing.

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Monday, 13 August 2012

Charting paths between single “secondly” stories and their contested precursors

"How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power. ... Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity." — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I would like to make a brief reflection on ChimamandaAdichie’s brilliant TED talk on what she analyses as the “danger of the single story.” Her analysis of this danger — “Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become” — is brilliant and so worthwhile listening to that I am not going to tempt readers to skip it by summarizing it here.  Rather, I will start with the passage from right in the middle of the talk that I cannot stop thinking about:
-->Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I work on many topics where what I spend most of my time doing seems to be to try to get people to take a step back from "secondly." I'm not exactly trying to get us "back" to some sense of "firstly," as appealing as that often is as a first step, since sometimes understanding how we got to where we are now is important. So I recognize that we're likely to end up here often, on this path between realizing that where we are is at "secondly," then trying to figure out "firstly," then realizing there may be many different steps that are important. It's often difficult to agree about how we got to where we are now, and so instead of just charting some path from first to second and so on, I find myself working to creative supportive infrastructures for supporting the ability to see more context, to see how contingent our explanatory stories are, and to practice ways to become more comfortable with the uncertainty involved in that contingency. 

The "secondly" story I'm working on right now is the story of how the agricultural powerhouses of the world feel compelled to feed the rest of the world (or at least to narrate what they are doing as "feeding the world") — a story that seems like a good example because it doesn't feel secondary. Until we think hard about how the rest of the world might get fed via our efforts to feed the world, or why it's so invisible how "the world" might be feeding itself, or might not be able to, the "single story" nature of such a phrase as "to feed the world" usually doesn't present itself. And once the existence of backstory becomes perceptible, all the things that the "feeding the world" story helps to support may feel vulnerable. Stepping back from the question may free those of us who live under that story from being beholden to all the presuppositions involved in assuming so singularly that we are responsible for feeding the world — and also help us understand why we feel so responsible, and how we might support the negotiation of a range of stories that do justice to diverse ways to empower and humanize.
Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. TED talk:
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Monday, 6 August 2012

Why People Love the Film Casablanca

In 1943, Casablanca won three Oscars: for best picture, best director, and best writers. It starred attractive actors who included Humphrey Bogart as Rick, Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, and Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo. But why has it remained one of the most popular Hollywood movies ever made? It was thought of by its makers as just another movie to entertain growing American cinema audiences. One of the writers, the witty Julius Epstein, said of it: “We were not making art, we were making a living” (Hawtree, 2001). But it has been much discussed and much analyzed. So what psychological reason may there be to explain why it has been so interesting to film experts, and so continually appealing to movie watchers?

For those of you who don't know it—and I am afraid I need to say that this is a spoiler alert—the film is set in Casablanca during World War II, from where, if they could obtain exit visas, people fleeing the Nazis could take flights to Lisbon, and from there make their way to USA. Early in the film we learn that two letters of transit, bearing irrevocable permission to leave Casablanca, have been stolen. For safekeeping they end up being given to Rick who runs the Bar Américaine. Ilsa and the Czech freedom-fighter Laszlo turn up at Rick’s bar, also wanting to travel to Lisbon. Rick is full of respect for Laszlo. It becomes clear that Ilsa and Rick have a past together. In the film's single long flashback, we see that early in the war they had a passionate affair in Paris, and were due to leave together on the last train before the Nazis over-ran the city. Ilsa didn’t arrive at the station. Rick’s sardonic statements, his lonely drinking, his self-protective attitude—“I stick my neck out for no-one”—derive from feeling deeply wounded by her. Now she turns up with someone famous and admirable. It turns out that Laszlo and Ilsa are married, but Ilsa remains attracted to Rick. The film's story has been set up. Will the two letters of transit be used by Ilsa and Laszlo, or will the pull of the past be sufficient for the letters to be used by Ilsa and Rick?

The movie-watchers learn what Rick did not not know at the time of his affair with Ilsa in Paris, that she was married to Laszlo at that time. She thought her husband had been killed in a concentration camp. As she was about to leave for the station to meet Rick, a friend brought news that Laszlo was in Paris and needed her. If this were a more usual film, the lovers, Rick and Ilsa, having found each other again, would take the letters of transit, board a flight to Lisbon and live happily-ever-after in a nice apartment in New York. But they don’t. Rick realizes he must consider the fight against the Nazis, and the relationship between Ilsa and Laszlo into which he had unknowingly intruded. He gives the letters of transit to Laszlo, who leaves with Ilsa on a plane for Lisbon. Rick does the right thing and we, in the audience, feel deeply moved.

Why are we so moved? To explain this we need, I think, two components.

The first component is one that I discussed in my post on resonance, of two weeks ago (click here) on how the mind of the reader or movie-goer meets the story. In such a meeting identification takes place. In this story we become Rick, embittered though still in love with Ilsa. As Kaufman and Libby (2012; discussed in OnFiction on 5 May, click here) have shown, in identification we enter the story and take our experience from the character.

The second component is the idea of elevation, proposed by Haidt (2003). It's a strange feeling of warmth and inspiration that occurs when one sees someone doing something altruistic, like helping a stranger, or behaving in a decent way when self-interest would urge them otherwise. Elevation is a moral emotion, and Haidt’s work fits well with research by Zillmann (2000), who has shown that in fiction we are all moral monitors, constantly evaluating the moral quality of each character’s actions, feeling warmly towards a liked character who acts well, and angry at a disliked character who acts badly. Algoe and Haidt (2009) have shown in a range of studies that elevation is an emotional response to someone who acts in a good way. Mediated by this emotion, the act is contagious, and motivates the person who sees it towards behaving in the same kind of way. A difficulty of portraying it in a movie is that too often it can seem soppy. In Casablanca, with Bogart’s toughness, Bergman’s innocence, and the writers’ wit, there’s no soppiness. This film can move us over and over again.

This is a modified version of my review: Oatley (2011) The right thing. Review of Casablanca (1942) dir. Michael Curtiz, PsycCRITIQUES, 56(36), 2011, pp. [np]

Algoe, S., & Haidt, J. (2009). Witnessing excellence in action: the "other-praising" emotions of elevation, gratitude, and admiration. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 105-127.

Curtiz, M. (Director). (1942). Casablanca. USA.

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality.In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 275-289). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Harmetz, A. (2002). The making of Casablanca: Bogart, Bergman, and World War II. New York: Hyperion.

Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 1-19.

Zillmann, D. (2000). Humor and comedy. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal (pp. 37-57). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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