September 29, 2003

What about the end?

I know this is a rather straightforward question, but it was of particular interest to me in Calvino's novel, a work that seems obsessed with beginnings. Towards the close of the novel the sole continuous narrative, that of the Reader, takes on an unusual degree of absurdity that is comparable to or even greater than those of the novels he has been reading. As I'm sure you noticed, everything begins to blend together, from the Lotaria-Ingrid-Etc. character, to the very titles of the books for which the reader has been searching. I'm not sure what to make of the scene in the library. Calvino seems to give us a tutorial on the different ways one can read a book, an appropriate ending to a novel that struggles with the meaning of reading, but what of the fact that the titles on the reader's list, when strung together, form the beginning of a book? Finally, what happens when Calvino suggests there are really only two endings to a book (death or marriage, basically) and he chooses that of marriage between the hero and his primary love interest as the end to his own novel?

Part of me felt that Calvino was making fun of me, as a reader, and my need for closure. Will any ending do- even one that is as brief, sudden, and formulaic as the one Calvino offers? The concept of a beginning, middle, and end is certainly linear- so in a novel that seems so fragmented, how does an ending function? Does it have any value?

Posted by epetrick at 12:28 PM | Comments (4)

I read, therefore it writes.

In Chapter eight, which is Silas Flannery's diary, he delves into this interesting idea of there being an objectivity of thought, thought that is a constant presence in the universe, that can be expressed in the form "it writes" (Calvino 176). He goes on to discuss writing as being an act that goes beyond the individual, while reading remains the individual act that qualifies it.

I am somewhat confused by this postulation on Flannery and Calvino's parts. While I agree that to a degree there are no new thoughts, and therefore writing always has its roots somewhere in "the universe," I think that authors are able to find for themselves styles and perspectives on ideas that are new. An author's new perspective on an old idea does not limit the idea to the personality of the author, as Flannery suggests, but rather releases new ideas, new material into the universe of thought. Or at least I think so.

I am really confused by this whole situation-- if anyone has any clarifying ideas that are already out there in the universe to share with me, I'd really appreciate them.

Posted by josborne at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

September 28, 2003


At risk of sounding like the (generally hateful) feminist, Lotaria, I have to ask: Does anyone else have serious issues with the sexuality going on in this novel? Do the appellations "Reader" (for the male) and "Other Reader" (for the female, who is never really developed as a plausible second-person character) bother anyone else? (Female as the "Other.") What are we to make of the fact that the Writer (Silas Flannery) is male? That the Counterfeiter is male? That all seven of the Readers who pop up at the library at the end are also male? I may be paranoid, which is a class theme anyway, but it seems as though Male is the normative mode of existence in the novel; the Female mode of existence only appears when the plot requires some kind of sexual scenario. And to complicate our interpretations that much more, Calvino seems to be distinctly AWARE of this, making fun of this contrivance in Chapter 9:

"Reader, what are you doing?...You're the absolute protagonist of this book, very well; but do you believe that gives you the right to have carnal relations with all the female characters? Like this, without any preparation..." (219).

Most of the page is taken up by this truly comical self-consciousness, but does humor or self-awareness really make the novel's sexuality less problematic? The only female characters are Lotaria, Ludmilla, and (maybe?) Lotaria's mysterious double, Shelia-Alfonsina-Gertrude-of-the-ever-shifting-name. Lotaria is obviously dislikable, mainly due to her (admittedly, over-the-top) feminist ideology--but where does that leave feminism in the novel? Lotaria's identity-less double is so obviously sexually problematic, I don't know where to begin. And though Ludmilla is idealized (as a character, as a woman, as a reader) and supposedly empowered by her position as a pure Reader by the novel's end, I'm still not quite sure what to make of her. If she is actually the "pure Reader," free of interpretation, then isn't she also a *passive* reader, blindly accepting whatever is fed to her? And we're stuck with the passive female cliche. But later, Arkadian Porphyrich describes Ludmilla as "the winner" in her conflict with Ermes Marana by reading in such a way as to "uncover truths hidden in the most barefaced fake, and falsity with no attenuating circumstances in words claiming to be most truthful" (239). Doesn't that mean that she's interpreting the texts she reads? Hasn't Calvino been mocking us for our need to interpret all along? Is Ludmilla just a "better" interpreter than the rest of us, doing it the "right" way? I honestly don't know what to make of her or of her role as a reader, which is described simultaneously as empowered and passive.

And what about when the Reader decides at the end that he suddenly wants to marry Ludmila? And in the next page, they are married. I'm glad she got to have so much say in that. Were we adequately prepared for that? Is it a sort of joke on Calvino's part, a commentary on the happily-ever-after ending?

I don't know that it's directly related to the human/machine theme of this course, but I think the issues of sexuality are so bound up in the power play at work in the novel and in the essential point-of-view here that we really can't ignore them. Any comments, since we probably won't get this in to class time?

[UPDATE: I've tinkered with your formatting here, W., just to make this a bit more readable. --KF]

Posted by wstubbs at 09:51 PM | Comments (2)

September 27, 2003

Inside Cavadagna’s Office

Calvino’s emphasis on the physicality of books provides an interesting angle to consider the way we think about textuality and its relationship to writing technologies and literary production. Along with the two main Readers of Calvino’s novel, we are accustomed to think of texts in books as being solid, complete, and authoritative. By rupturing the various “texts” within the novel, presenting books with mixed up signatures, incomplete thoughts, and lost sections, Calvino creates an inter-textual reading experience which tests the boundaries of narrative. The textual ruptures of If on a winter’s night a traveler lead us to question how the presentation of texts in book form – a solid, sequential, glued, and closed format – has shaped our cultural understanding of reading. Interestingly, Calvino presents most of these ruptures in the context of literary production; a technological screw-up jumbles a book’s signatures, the chaos of Cavadagna’s office causes texts to disappear, change, become confused.

I’m wondering how our culture and our current technology have influenced the way we think about the whole-ness of a text, or what even qualifies as text. Is Calvino just making transparent the process of textual amalgamation that all readers now use? When we read, are we just embedding the text into a master narrative – a text that is all texts we have read? Are current hyper-textual technologies merely making these processes more transparent?

Posted by ascott at 03:08 PM | Comments (1)

On Reading, Writing, and Violence

In conjunction with our discussion of the "violence" of the interpretive act in Calvino, here's another perspective: Shelley Jackson (whose Patchwork Girl we'll be reading later in the semester) has recently announced her newest project, entitled "Skin," for which she seeks participants willing to become part of an "embodied story," in which each will have one word of the story (and possibly a punctuation mark) tattooed upon his or her body. Each participant is required to send Jackson a photograph documenting the tattoo, but the text "will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium." Most interesting to me, however, is the fate of those so inscribed:

From this time on, participants will be known as "words". They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

This is a really provocative project, but one that seems to me to do a double violence to the idea of readership -- both physically carving the text itself into its ostensible audience (arguably "demoting" them to the unconsciousness of inscription itself) while simultaneously reserving all of the pleasures of reading to the author.

(Other discussions of this project have popped up on a number of blogs; see, for instance, rhubarb and Scott Rettberg, among a slew of others.)

Posted by KF at 11:59 AM | Comments (2)

September 26, 2003

Oulipo Poem

Add a line using the same rules for our Splendid poem, but let's try and get this poem to make sense. The title of this poem will be.....


Posted by vglaze at 02:06 PM | Comments (7)

Hypertexts and the Polictics of Writing

This is an except from an interview with Ted Nelson the guy who invented hypertext.

Cyberspace Report: What inspiration led you to develop hypertext?
Ted Nelson: Well I was always, as a kid, into writing and reading and literature and movies basically, like a lot of people, and I had done a great deal of writing as a youth, and re-writing, and the intricacy of taking ideas and sentences and trying to arrange them into coherent, sensible, structures of thought struck me as a particularly intricate and complex task, and I particularly minded having to take thoughts which were not intrinsically sequential and somehow put them in a row because print as it appears on the paper, or in handwriting, is sequential. There was always something wrong with that because you were trying to take these thoughts which had a structure, shall we say, a spatial structure all their own, and put them into linear form. Then the reader had to take this linear structure and recompose his or her picture of the overall content, once again placed in this nonsequential structure. You had two it seemed -- and now I'm reconstructing because I don't know how explicitly I thought this out as a youth -- you had to take these two additional steps of deconstructing some thoughts into linear sequence, and then reconstructing them. Why couldn't that all be bypassed by having a nonsequential structure of thought which you presented directly? That was the hypothesis -- well the hyperthesis really -- of hypertext, that you could save both the writer's time and the reader's time and effort in putting together and understanding what was being presented.

I never really thought of hypertext in this sense. I am dyslexic and in my writing and conversation I go through a very similar process to the one described by Nelson. I struggle to express myself in a way that others can fully comprehend. I jump around from idea to idea and end an idea abruptly. In this interview Nelson speaks to the politics of writing and expression and how anything nonlinear is discounted. I have personally adapted traditional punctuation to function in a nontraditional manner that helps me communicate my ideas. I love parenthesis, dashes and slashes but, realize the rest of the writing world is not so fond of the frequency of which I use them or the instances in which I use them. It is interesting to find that something so linear (hypertexts) came out of his nonlinear and nontraditional thoughts.

Posted by vglaze at 05:21 AM | Comments (1)

September 23, 2003

No scissors, but we can still play

I thought cutting up and then rearranging all the lines of the 100,000 billion Queneau sonnets sounded interesting, but way too much effort. So, naturally, I turned towards the internet, to see if someone else made a program to do the work for me. And lo, someone did! A few people, in fact.

Here are some of the different takes on how to present the Cent mille milliards de poemes on to the internet:

This one has a "random generator" script -- you press a button and a new version of the sonnets appears magically.

Another one also generates the poems for you, but lets you choose the number of the poem you want to create (You enter a random number between 1 and 100,000,000,000 and a corresponding poem appears.)

And finally, this one is by far the best, in my opinion, since it's more interactive than the other two and closer to the original idea of cutting, mixing and pasting. A grid appears next to a random sonnet, and you can click on different areas of the grid to have a certain line appear.

Then, I thought, interesting that I should automatically prefer the version of the poems which puts that element of human agency back into the mix -- the one that lets me still feel in some way that I'm still part "creator" of the poem. I can rearrange the lines to make the poem which I feel is most "literary."

What do you think about the two different versions of translating the Oulipo project onto the internet -- the random generator version, versus the pick-and-choose-which-lines version? Do they change the way you think about the project of the poems at all?

It also occured to me that this blog (maybe in comments to this entry?) could be a space for posting versions of the poems generated from the sites above which we are especially fond of. Is it fun to play around with these poems, or does it feel too limiting, despite the 100000000 different possibilities?


Posted by aazuolas at 06:02 PM | Comments (3)

September 22, 2003

Remedios Varo

After some delay, the Remedios Varo painting that Pynchon draws upon in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49. (Note, ironically enough, the link's domain name.) What do you notice here? What does Pynchon emphasize in his textual rendering of the image? What does he leave out? What do those stresses and omissions seem to suggest about Oedipa's initial plight and her quest throughout the novel?

Posted by KF at 08:50 AM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2003

The Argument from consciousness and the machine/human divide

Many of the problems raised by Turing and Wiener have also been raised in the philosophical specialization known as "philosophy of mind." A philosophical model of mind/brain interaction that treats the mind as a kind of computer is called "machine functionalism." I will try to offer what minimal background I know about this model and then suggest how this line of thinking might reveal a possible gap between human and machine thinking.

In 1967, Hilary Putnam published a paper entitled "Psychological Predicates." This paper changed the field of "philosophy of mind" (which examines the interaction between the physical brain and the non-substantial mind) significantly. Primarily, it contributed to the demise of physicalism (also known as reductionism) which posits the mind-brain identity theory (i.e., the idea that the alleged mind is the same as the physical brain, or that the former can be reduced to the latter). In place of this dominant yet philosophically problematic theory, Putnam introduced "functionalism." Jaegwon Kim describes (machine) functionalism as the position that "we can think of the mind as a Turing machine (or a probabilistic automaton)" (Philosophy of Mind). Furthermore, "for something to have mentality - that is, to have a psychology - is for it to be a physically realized Turing machine of appropriate complexity." There is much more to be said about functionalism, but that will suffice as background. (By the way this position has become very influential and, I think, the preeminent model for the mind/ consciousness among philosophers of mind).

Anyway, one of the questions raised by functionalists (and one that is relevant to our purposes in class) is whether human mentality can be equated with machine mentality. In other words, is there a difference between human and computer mentality if, given an identical input, a (complex) computer produces the same output as a human? In terms of the imitation game, is mentality and thought determined merely by a participant's ability to give a humanlike answer to any question?

This question can be confronted in a number of ways (we attempted a few in class). One intriguing response to Turing came from John Searle in an article entitled "Minds, Brains, and Programs" (1980). Searle presented a thought experiment called the "Chinese Room" argument. This argument suggests that human mentality is substantively different from a machine program's mode of "thinking." Instead of putting you all through an awkward summary, I will quote Kim's explanation:

"Imagine someone (say, Searle himself) who understands no Chinese who is confined in a room ('the Chinese room') with a set of rules for systematically transforming strings of symbols to yield further symbol strings. These symbol strings are in fact Chinese expressions, and the transformation rules are purely formal in the sense that their application depends solely on the shapes of the symbols involved, not their meanings. Searle becomes very adept at manipulating Chinese expressions in accordance with the rules given to him (we may suppose that Searle has memorized the whole rule book) so that every time a string of Chinese characters is sent in, Searle quickly goes to work and promptly sends out an appropriate string of Chinese characters. From the perspective of someone outside the room, the input-output relationships are exactly the same as they would be if someone with a genuine understanding of Chinese, instead of Searle, were locked inside the room. And yet Searle does not understand any Chinese, and there is no understanding of Chinese going on anywhere inside the Chinese room."

So, inside the room, there is only a manipulation of expressions (based on their shapes). There is no thorough understanding of (and experience of) the semantics. Searle goes on to argue that the work done by a computer is analagous to what goes on in the Chinese room. Meanings of words are "computationally irrelevant." His ultimate problem with the Turing test is that it does not really account for semantics. Beliefs and desires (human psychological states), on the other hand, necessitate meaning.

I am not sure that I accept Searle's argument, but it is an interesting approach to forming a distinction between machine processes and human thoughts. Do you all think that thinking and consciousness can ever be achieved by machines? Are these terms loaded with connotations of 'what it means to be human' and thus unfair to apply to machines? Despite the complexity of a given machine, is this a problem of type rather than degree? In other words, is consciousness or experience a uniquely human attribute? Or, on the other hand, are humans (in a sense) just extremely complex machines? Interestingly enough, philosophers have had a greater problem with defining "human consciousness" (or distinguishing it from machine "consciousness") than just about anything else.

I would be interested to see if you all have any ideas about negotiating the human/machine divide or thoughts about why this is such an important question in the first place. Is our 'humanity' at stake in understanding the mind in terms of computing machines? What are the implications of this discussion for writing, creativity, and the idea of (inter)textual "networks"?

- Patrick Jagoda

Posted by pjagoda at 12:42 AM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2003


Based on today's conversations (about the Turing test, as well as about the relationship between cybernetics and society), I'm wondering if any of you have come across any websites that might help further our thinking. For instance: here's a site dedicated to the Loebner Prize, which is the ongoing annual competition I mentioned in class today. (Note the places I was wrong: the grand prize is $100,000, not $1 million, and though no one has yet won that prize, a lesser prize has been awarded every year.) Bring us links via the comments, or if you've got more you want to say, begin a new post...

Posted by KF at 04:08 PM | Comments (4)

September 15, 2003


This is the blogspace I've mentioned several times in class, finally up and running. You should log in at the address I gave you and begin posting as soon as possible.

I'll be posting here as well -- thoughts that occur in the off hours, links to various resources, and so forth. I've also built a blogroll for us (the list of links on the left). Do some exploring, and bring us back good examples of blogs that we should be reading.

My expectations for your writing here are as follows: each of you should post (at least) one new entry each week, and should respond to (at least) two of your peers' entries each week. Your posts should be thoughtful, interesting, and well-written. Attention to grammar, spelling, and other conventions of writing is a must.

Finally, remember: we're carrying on a conversation with one another here, but we're doing it in public. Be generous, and keep your broader audience in mind.

Posted by KF at 07:57 PM | Comments (2)