Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: a re-read, hazy thoughts, and the Virtual

I’m re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (so I know the ending), and so far I’ve been very impressed.

Having re-read the earlier ones again (I’m on the sixth book, Song of Susannah, right now), some of the things that I was on the fence about, and the things that I know other people absolutely hated — I’m looking at you, number nineteen, Doctor Doom Wolves and Harry Potter “Sneetches,” and certain intertextual and metatextual cameos I know are coming up — now seem a lot better, and a lot more coherent, what with the internal logic established by the series.

Speaking of “internal logic established by the series,” I think internal logic is an appropriate term for at least a big part of what the “Dark Tower” itself stands for. The internal logic of a work of fiction, or perhaps a body of work. What “holds it together,” so to speak. The focus on “19” relates to King’s body of work being such a product of its time(s), the latter half of the 1900s, culminating in 19-99.  This again relates to the different times from which Roland pulls his ka-tet, to the breakdown of time being experienced in Mid-World, to the heavy focus on dialect and its relation to place and time, and to the role of a “gunslinger,” or the figure of the gunslinger, in a world that has moved on. Moved on from what? Other stories, other genres. There’s obviously a big focus on stories, genre and their relation to history, and to intertextuality.

For example, I just read the bit with Trudy Damascus in Song of Susannah. Trudy doesn’t believe in UFOs or fantastic stories, until she sees Susannah/Mia show up out of thin air, magically. The scenes focalized through Trudy make constant references to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge ascribes Marley’s ghostly presence to indigestion, a bit of underdone potato. The point here, with both A Christmas Carol and with the episode with Trudy, is that it doesn’t matter what *really* happened, in a way. What matters is that whether Scrooge’s or Trudy’s experience did or did not happen, they are fundamentally changed, forever. Trudy will never again scoff at people who believe in fantastic stories and UFOs; Scrooge will never look at Christmas the same way again, whether it was a bad dream brought on by indigestion or not. Even fiction has real power, in the “real” world. Our lives are, as Slavoj Žižek would say, governed precisely by that which is virtual, immaterial: fictional narratives we’ve absorbed so deep into our bones that we don’t even know we know them.

Many of my thoughts are very hazy right now, but I’ll have to write more on it, because I’m now thinking there is a whole lot going on.

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HBO’s Enlightened: some intitial thoughts on the Pilot

I just watched HBO’s pilot for Enlightened, after some suggestions from the Onion’s A/V club that apparently the second season is brilliant.  And frankly, I really liked just the pilot.

Dern’s character, Amy Jellico, is really nuanced, and the show is walking a very fine line with her, balancing satire and empathy very well. Like, you look at that title, “Enlightened,” and thinks, is it just an instance of dramatic irony? Well, no, of course not. First, Amy’s “enlightenment” isn’t completely trite, nor is it totally off the mark. She’s not wrong, per se, even if she can be totally insufferable, manipulative, and solipsistic (you know, the opposite of enlightened). The title probably also refers not just to her own change in Hawaii, but to the journey she actually begins — rather than achieves — in the pilot.

For example, you can see how Amy’s experience with the sea turtle in Enlightened’s pilot is kinda trite, and why someone like her ex-husband would scoff at such an experience. After all, don’t we, a bit? But you can also understand how that would be very profound for her, and think, hey, maybe that isn’t so crazy. Even if it is just a very surface-level engagement with various New Agey bullshit, does that make it totally wrong?

Here’s J.D. Salinger summing up the same thing in his short story, “Teddy”:

Life is a gift horse in my opinion.

[…]

“I was six when I saw that everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.”

It’s the same thing, only in “Teddy” we don’t laugh. (We’re puzzled and confused, as though we’ve read a Zen koan rather than a short story.)

I’ve actually seen comparisons between Enlightened and HBO’s The Wire. My opening guess (again, having only seen the pilot, so take it for what it’s worth) regarding any Wire comparisons would be to say that The Wire is to the realities of city life as Enlightened is to the the realities of corporate America. Amy Jellicoe is McNulty, but also the opposite of McNulty. Someone can correct me on this quite probably insane analogy.

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First seasons of TV shows without *that* character

Ever begin a binge through a TV show that you haven’t watched in a long time, only to realize, Hey, wait — what? OH RIGHT. That guy wasn’t on the first season! Weird.

Well, I’ve noticed that a lot. And it is really weird.

Just look at all these shows:

  • The first season of Lost without Ben Linus or Juliet.
  • The first seasons of Parks and Recreation without Ben and Chris.
  • The first few seasons of Supernatural without Castiel, or the first season without Bobby.
  • The first season of Stargate: Atlantis without Ronon Dex.
  • The first seasons of Star Trek: Voyager without Seven of Nine.
  • The first four seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine without Worf and/or Sisko’s goatee.
  • The first seasons of Vampire Diaries without Klaus, or various other Originals.
  • The first season of Battlestar Galactica without Sam Anders or Cavil.
  • The first seasons of True Blood without Alcide, and with Jessica as only a guest star.

By contrast, some shows get weird later on.

  • The later seasons of Stargate: SG-1 without O’Neill.
  • The later seasons of The X-Files without Mulder.
  • The later seasons of The West Wing without Rob Lowe.
  • The last season of Highlander without Duncan McCleod’s glorious ponytail.

And then, finally, there are the oddballs:

  • Because of the huge changes in cast due, basically, to the show’s premise, Friday Night Lights is the only show that seems to achieve both effects: at the end of the show, you miss characters A,B,C, but if you re-watch it, when you begin the show, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, right, characters X, Y, Z aren’t even on the show yet.”
  • One time I watched the pilot of Buffy and was surprised to see that Angel was there right in the first episode. He seems like he would have been added later on, but nope.
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Gimmick episodes on television shows (Supernatural, Fringe, X-Files, etc.)

I’m binging through Supernatural on Netflix, and I just got to Season 4, episode 5, “Monster Movie.” (Slight spoilers for jokes ahead.) I just wanted to let everyone know that this episode includes the 1931 version of Dracula (corny accent and all) driving off on a moped to escape the main character, Dean, and as Dracula is driving off you hear a little *beep beep*! That’s pretty much all, though. That’s the meat of this post. I’m just mentioning a joke that happened once. Everything that follows is all filler.

Anyways. This show does gimmick episodes really well. Here’s a later exchange from the same episode:

*ding dong*! [Dracula opens the door]
Dracula: Good eee-vening!
Bored Pizza Boy: [pause] Uh, pizza… delivery.
Dracula: Ah! You’ve brought a repast! Excellent! Continue to be of such service and your life will be spared.
Bored Pizza Boy: Uh huh. That’ll be $15.50
Dracula: Tell me… is there… garlic on this pizza?
Bored Pizza Boy: [pause] I don’t know. Did you order garlic?
Dracula: [offended] No!

The jokes are obvious, but they work.

I want to put together a binge list of just multiple shows’ gimmick episodes, including shows like The X-Files, Supernatural, Fringe, etc. (Though what that “etc.” includes is up for debate.) The hard thing would be determining precisely which gimmicks to include. Options for breaking it down would be something like this:

  • All the gimmick episodes for a few specific shows.
  • All the Halloween or Christmas episodes (although in this case just doing every, say, Simpsons Halloween special would be, like, 23 episodes or whatever just by itself).
  • Multiple variations of “the episode in black and white” (i.e. the “riff on old movies” episode).
  • Multiple variations of “the episode that’s a cartoon” (possibly the “everyone takes drugs” episode).
  • Multiple variations of “the Rashomon episode.”

And, since this post is basically just an ad for Supernatural, I’ll mention that the next episode features a wishing well. It includes a kid who wishes for super strength then uses it to terrorize the other kids who were bullying him, at one point screaming, towards the sky, arms upraised, “Kneel before Tod! KNEEL BEFORE TOD!

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“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

I just read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. You can find it here: Stories of Your Life and Others. The Kindle version is $7.69.

It's really good. It's reminded me (somewhat) of that Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode, "Darmok," where the universal translator doesn't work quite right because the alien language's referential function is kind of on a different wavelength than our own. In order to say, for example, something along the lines of, "Darn, this isn't working," the alien keeps saying, "Shaka, when the walls fell," referring to an historical event. In order to say, "You [Picard] and I [Captain Dathan] should fight together against a common enemy," the alien says, "Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra!" which is also an actual historical event involving people called, presumably, Darmok and Jalad. The episode resulted in this neat-o t-shirt:

(Credit to SA forums poster "Kirk," I think…?)

"Darmok" is probably one of the best TNG episodes.

Anyways, the Ted Chiang story is even better. (Some spoilers about the scifi and linguistic theory in the story.) "Story of Your Life" deals a whole bunch with semiotics. Like, what would a language be like if it came from a culture that understood the time-space continuum in a manner completely different from our own? I.e., if it came from a culture that experienced all events simultaneously?

Dr. Louise Banks is struck by the fact that, of all the math Earth has tried communicating with the aliens, they seem best able to communicate Fermat's principle of least time, which is, y'know, a pretty weird principle, because it means that light that hits water seems to "know" beforehand at which angle to travel in order to hit the water in just such a way that it travels in the least time. Eventually, Banks realizes that the aliens experience time non-sequentially. So how do they communicate?

Chiang (or the character-narrator, Dr. Louise Banks) posits that communication as such would be performative. Chiang basically lists the standard three examples that J.L. Austin gives of speech-act theory. Of the three, the one that illustrates the idea best is the one that's always given: we go through the ceremony of a wedding, knowing full well that it's going to end with "I do," but we still have to go through the full performance in order to make the ceremony "effective." We go through the motions to make those motions a reality.

This has thematic implications because of the side-plot relating to Dr. Louise Banks' daughter. The story uses the Sapir-Whorf hypthesis, which is the idea that the structure of a language structures thought. Steven Pinker doesn't like it. (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is different from what I call the Bashir-Worf hypothesis: the idea that learning to speak Klingon without the universal translator make you more attractive to Dax symbiotes.) Would we have children if we knew the future, and that future wasn't always good? If we knew the future, would we perform the motions of events in order to make them a reality? And, in a classic time-travel paradox kind of way, wouldn't [enough] foreknowledge of the future us to act on it?

Chiang's "Story of Your Life" is excellent because it ties together seamlessly the high-concept science fiction with the emotional implications it explores, in a way much more resonant than a lot of sci fi short stories I've read. (I've read a fair share of golden age sci fi, but I haven't read an absolute tonne, and I readily admit that there's a lot of new stuff of which I am ignorant. I mostly read Gardner Dozoi's Year's Best anthologies.) I'll be reading the rest of Chiang's collection (there are seven more stories, I think) and then, probably, I'll try writing a review on Amazon or something. Writing Amazon reviews might be a New Year's resolution. Maybe. I don't know yet.

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Article on George Eliot’s Sympathy, Ethics, and Atheism in LA Review of Books

Look No More Backward: George Eliot and Atheism by Rohan Maitzen. She’s an English associate professor who teaches at Dalhousie and blogs at Novel Readings.

Good stuff. Gooood stuff. The article includes my favourite quote from “The Natural History of German Life” about sympathy. I keep coming back to sympathy again and again in thinking about aesthetics and ethics. E.g., me reading Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature: “So… art is… this… Event, and both the creation and reading of a literary work is this encounter with alterity… with an other and so that means… Oh! He’s talking about sympathy. Yeah, okay.”

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Slavoj Žižek on wrapping your head around Hegel

Standard Žižek. Vulgar jokes combined with an encouragement to not settle for your initial, first-glance interpretation.

 

Also, the idea that Hegel somehow thought that history’s over with him, that he comes at the end. It’s — I mean, it’s empirically not true. […] So, at least, empirically, he wasn’t an idiot.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “Slavoj Žižek. The Return to Hegel Part 1/16,” Saas-Fee, Switzerland: The European Graduate School, 2009. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.

 

Allow me to conclude, to propose my final formula. Because still, now, I’m well aware, I just tried to confuse you. Like, you think you, as it were, caught Hegel by his balls and are squeezing them, but no, Hegel finds a way out, and so on. No no no, I nonetheless propose this formula.

– Žižek, Slavoj, “SLAVOJ ZIZEK Negativity in Hegel and Freud, Part 6,” New York: The Deutsches Haus at New York University, 28 October 2011. YouTube. Web. 21 August 2012.

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Anthony Trollope and Stephen King on writing ten pages per day

Two prolific writers from two different centuries agree: 10 pages a day keeps… uh, “not being prolific” away.

All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom,—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself,—to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went. But my three hours were not devoted entirely to writing. I always began my task by reading the work of the day before, an operation which would take me half an hour, and which consisted chiefly in weighing with my ear the sound of the words and phrases. […] This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year;—the precise amount which so greatly acerbated the publisher in Paternoster Row, and which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.

— Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography, ch. 15

 

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. […] On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.

— Stephen King, On Writing (section 2 of “On Writing”)

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Žižek, the Coen Bros., and C.S. Peirce on the semiotic reality of math formulas

How do you represent what can’t be represented? (Painfully inadequate metaphors, duh.)

Then, the Symbolic Real.

It’s simply, for example, scientific discourse, scientific formulas, like quantum physics. Why is this Real? For a simple reason: the minimum definition of the Real, for Lacan, is that which resists symbolization, inclusion into our universe of meaning. And isn’t that precisely which happens for example with quantum physics? What is quantum physics? Formulas which work — experimentally confirmed and so on and so on — but we cannot translate them into our daily experience of ordinary reality. As we all know, this is what is so traumatic about quantum physics. We literally cannot understand it. Not in the sense that we, common people, cannot understand it, only a couple of scientists can — even they cannot. In what sense? In the sense that it just works, but if you tried to build a consistent ontology out of it, again, you get meaningless results. You get time running backwards, you get parallel universes, or whatever. In other words you get things which simply are meaningless with regard to our ordinary notion of reality. So this would be Symbolic Real. Symbolic, obviously it is Symbolic: formulas, pure signifiers. They function, it’s a functioning machine, but, meaningless. We cannot make any sense out of it. We cannot relate it to our experience. Which is why we try so desperately to do it, which is why we try to invent metaphors to imagine quantum universe. But, it cannot be done.

— Slavoj Žižek The Reality of the Virtual (2004) (my transcription)

 

LARRY:
(awkwardly writing formulas on the board)
Okay. So. This part is exciting. So. Am I right? So, okay. So, if that’s that, then we can do this. And that’s Shrodinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead? Or is the cat… not dead?

[…]

(Shortly thereafter, in Larry’s office.)

LARRY:
So, uh, what can I do for you?

CLIVE:
Uh, Doctor Gopnik. I believe the results of the physic midterm were unjust.

LARRY:
Uh huh. How so?

CLIVE:
I received unsatisfactory grade. In fact, ‘F,’ the failing grade.

LARRY:
Uh, yes. You failed the midterm. That’s accurate.

CLIVE:
Yes, but that is not just. I was unaware to be examined on the mathematics.

LARRY:
Well, you can’t do physics without mathematics, really, can you?

CLIVE:
If I received a failing grade, I lose my scholarship. And I feel shame! I understand the physics! I understand the dead cat!

LARRY:
But y-you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give in class are just illustrative. They’re like fables, say, to help give you a picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat. The math is how it really works.

CLIVE:
Very difficult. Very difficult.

A Serious Man (2009) (my transcription)

 

Thus, an algebraic formula is an icon [i.e. a type of sign which shares some similar property with its object], rendered such by the rules of commutation, association, and distribution of the symbols. It may seem at first glance that it is an arbitrary classification to call an algebraic expression an icon; that it might as well, or better, be regarded as a compound conventional sign. But it is not so. For a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction. [par. 279]

[…]

Many diagrams [i.e. the second type of “hypoicon”] resemble their objects not at all in looks; it is only in respect to the relations of their parts that their likeness consists. [par. 282]

— Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers Vol. 2

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On fonts, mind control, contexts

Fonts control our minds. Everyone knows that. I feel like Roland Barthes’ Mythologies really needs a chapter on The New Yorker‘s font and its connotations/myth.

 

Did I read The New Yorker? This question had a dangerous urgency. It wasn’t any one writer or article he was worried about, but the font. The meaning embedded, at a preconscious level, by the look of the magazine; the seal, as he described it, that the typography and layout put on dialectical thought. According to Perkus, to read The New Yorker was to find that you always already agreed, not with The New Yorker but, much more dismayingly, with yourself. I tried hard to understand. Apparently here was the paranoia Susan Eldred had warned me of: The New Yorker‘s font was controlling, perhaps assailing, Perkus Tooth’s mind. To defend himself he frequently retyped their articles and printed them out in simple Courier, and attempt to dissolve the magazine’s oppressive context.

–  Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City p. 12-13

 

Often when we’re reading stories, and thinking about them and editing them, we’ll say, “Let’s go ahead and put it in the font.” It’s a sort of test marker. It makes things much more official. You get it in there and suddenly it looks much better, or sometimes it looks much worse.

–  Deborah Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, qtd. in “Jonathan Lethem on the New Yorker Font

 

We all know that we are influenced in many, many ways — many of which we remain blissfully unaware of. Could typefaces be one of them? Could the mere selection of a typeface influence us to believe one thing rather than another? Could typefaces work some unseen magic? Or malefaction?

[…]

I have often wondered about the visual element in text. Yes, we read the word “horse,” but we also see the letters, the typefaces, the shape of the word on the page. Is this not part of the meaning? It seems evident that we respond to different typefaces in different ways, but how many experiments have been done to determine the effect of typefaces on our perception of truth? Do we more readily accept (as true) sentences written in one typeface rather than another?

–  Errol Morris, “Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth (Part One)” at The New York Times: Opinionator

 

the most common type of image macro is a photograph with large text superimposed in Impact font, using all upper case letters and coloured white with a thin black outline

–  Wikipedia

 

I can has cheezburger?

–  Internet Meme

 

Think about Derrida’s infamous line “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” Happily, Gayatri Spivak gives us two translations. The second, parenthetical translation is the one I prefer: “there is no outside-text.” In other words, not everything is reducible to pure language, as is the case with structuralism, which indeed reduces things to their relations. What Derrida is saying, by contrast, is that a text is an operationally closed system (in the terms of Roy Bhaskar) that is founded on some kind of externality that it both includes and excludes, that it can’t talk about, but that it can’t help referencing in the negative. A word, for example, depends upon an inscribable surface, ink, and a history and culture of writing . . . The existence of a text is its coexistence with at least one (1+n) withdrawn entity.

–  Timothy Morton, “An Object-Oriented Defense of Poetry” in New Literary History, pp. 218-219

 

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