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Monthly Archives: November 2009

I overheard this conversation, or this monologue rather, in a cafe the other day.  It was like listening to a character from a bad movie, so I wrote it down, mostly because I had no idea what else I could do about it.  There was much more of it, much more than I could tolerate at the time, and much more than any of my readers would be able to tolerate now, but here is a sample of the kind of thing that frightens me most in the world.

Well, my son went to one of those little islands, you know, Fiji I think, or something.  And I tried to find it on a globe, so I could see where he was every day, but there’s just so much water, so much, and the islands are all so small, and there’s  so many of them.  And the names are small too, on the globe I mean.  I couldn’t even find the right one, but I picked one anyway, because they’re all pretty much the same to me, you know what I mean?  But my son doesn’t write for weeks and weeks.  He just sends this little email that he got there safe and everything, and then I don’t hear from him in forever.  And its not like him, you know, not to write his momma, so I’m a little bit worried, but then he sends me a long email about how primitive, just primitive, everything is there, and how he can’t find wifi or anything, and how he finally found this internet cafe or something, but the speed is really slow, so he can’t write as much as he’d like.  That’s why he doesn’t write me as much, but he still writes when he can, because he loves his momma.

I woke early this morning to go to the market with my father and my youngest son, three generations of family, and it was colder outside than it has been yet this year, with a strong wind blowing from the north into our faces as we made our way home, and my son began to cyy because of the cold, refusing either to walk or to sit in the wagon, and it was inexpressibly right, somehow, that my father and I took turns pulling the wagon of groceries behind us and carrying my crying son, like a living metaphor of familial care through generations.

I posted some time ago about textual apparatus and the web, and I have been thinking ever since about the kinds of tools that might be most appropriate to the kinds of textuality that find their place on the web.  More recently, I read Ivan Illich describe his use of footnotes as a place to share the things that he has collected through his reading, and I began to wonder how this more convivial approach to textual apparatus might be applied to the web as well.

In the midst of this wondering, I became increasingly dissatisfied with how I was linking to books and to their authors in my posts.  Sometimes I could find a useful place to link, but most often I was merely linking to some brief biographical page or to a short review of a book, usually something that I had searched out for the purpose and had not even bothered to read very thoroughly.  Yet, when I began actually studying other people’s linking practises, there did not seem to be many alternatives.  As long as people were linking to something very specific, the links were interesting, but as soon as they began linking in a general way, in order to provide a citation or some context or some supplementary information, the links ceased being useful.  They were links to information that was too general to be useful as a citation and too uninteresting to be useful for anything else.  I felt that this kind of linking was often worse than not linking at all, and it was certainly not a kind of linking that was reflective of my own reading of the web, but I was not certain what I might do instead.

A few days ago, however, I read a post called “Notes on Methodology” on the Philosophy and Modern Carpentry blog that was working through the difficulties of citing the web.  It is a longer post, and it does not touch on the question of citation until somewhere near the middle, but it argues essentially that citing the web is difficult because the web is changing c0nstantly and because, even with third party web archiving projects, it is not possible to ensure that what has been cited one day, or even one second, will be there the next.

Now, I have no real solution to this problem, and it is not even a problem that troubles me very much as such, but it is a problem that gave me a moment of clarity.  I realized suddenly that citing the web was never going to be the same as citing a physical artifact, at least not in the technical ways that academic writing has come to understand citation, but that citing the web might very well allow the kinds of footnotes that Illich was making, footnotes as a kind of sharing, and might do so to a greater degree than even Illich could have imagined.  Citations, in this sense, would perhaps cease to be useful as references, and this would remain a problem for a certain kind of writing, but they would become much more useful as a kind of recommendation, a kind of sharing.  They would cease saying, “This person wrote these words in this edition of this text on this date,” and they would begin saying, “This person is an interesting writer, or thinker, or artist, so take some time to check this link, however much it might have changed since I posted it for you.”  They would cease providing a justification or a supplement to what has been written, and they would begin providing the textual connections that the author feels are worth sharing.

In that moment, I realized how it was that I will change my practise of linking.  Rather than linking an author’s name to a brief biography that I would never be bothered to read myself, I will link to an essay or an interview or a story, something that I have enjoyed that has been created by or about the author.  Rather than linking the title of a book to a synopsis or a short review that is useful only at the level of basic information, I will link to an interview with the author or a scholarly article about the book.   Instead of accepting the illusion that these links can and should be made to justify and support the facts of what I am writing, an illusion that most of the web seems to maintain subconsciously, even if only in the most general way, I will foster the practise of making my links into recommendations to the things that I find interesting about the authors, books, directors, films, and ideas that become the subjects of my writing.  Instead of asking links to be technical or informational, I will ask them to be personal and convivial.

If everyone were to link like this, perhaps, just perhaps, we would end up following links more often, rather than just noting that they are there.

Having spent the better part of four years now immersing myself in documentary film, I am starting to find a kind of comfort with the medium, a familiarity with its tendencies and its habits, with its movements and its processes.  I am discovering by contrast, however, how little familiarity I still have with the feature film, and I am realizing also that the process of making myself familiar with feature films will need to be much different than the process I used to familiarize myself with documentaries.  The difference is primarily this: I had almost no experience with documentary prior to approaching the medium seriously, so I had few preconceptions that needed to be overturned, while I have had a fairly extensive experience of the feature film, just by existing in my culture, but most of this experience has been with the lowest common denominator of Hollywood film.  So, while my approach to documentary film was to watch everything I could find, regardless of its quality, my approach to feature film, begun only a few weeks ago, has been to watch what are generally considered to be the best films.  So, I have been going into the public library, which is just down the street, and I have been browsing the shelves until I come to a Criterion Collection film, any Criterion Collection film, and I have been letting it be my film for the week.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Criterion Collection, it is, according to its own mission statement, “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” that is “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.”  It is, in other words, the creator and defender of a certain filmic canonicity that I hope will be the counterbalance to the popular film that has largely formed my experience to date.  Thus far, I have seen Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris (1972); Monte Hellman‘s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (1952).  During this time I have also seen Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will be Blood (2007), which will likely be a Criterion Collection film itself at some point or another.

Though these films are all very different from each other, they are similar in possessing what I will call a patient camera, one of the characteristics that I am coming to see as a distinction between strong films from weak ones.  A patient camera takes its time with its subjects.  It is not afraid of being still, of holding a shot, of showing silence and inaction, of including repetition.  It is interested in images of slowness and silence and stillness and duration as much as it is interested in images of speed and loudness and movement and transition.  Let me give several examples.

The  opening section of Solaris is a series of very long shots, either entirely still or moving slowly, of nature and of the protagonist, who remains mostly still and entirely speechless. There is only a very small amount of ambient sound, and the images are mostly of still objects, though some of them do move organically, slowly, almost hypnotically.  These images serve to parallel the movement of the great alien sea that the protagonist will later encounter, but they also create a tone of silence and stillness and aloneness and reflection that will be paralleled by the protagonists’ journey into space.

There Will Be Blood opens with another such speechless scene, though one that contains much more activity, and this forms a pattern for many of the film’s dialogue scenes, which are static or broken or inclusive of long silences but interrupted or ended by bursts of anger and action and violence and even murder.  Each of these scenes seems to underwrite how difficult it is for the protagonist to interact with the rest of humanity that he finds so repulsive.

Two-Lane Backtop has so little dialogue in it that the voices seem like intrusions when the characters finally do speak, and the film is full of long steady shots of the occupants of the vehicles as they drive through the landscape.  The dialogue is most often represented with a medium-range shot that does not require cutting from face to face to get the reactions of the characters, so the conversations are largely uncut, even when the lapse into silence, as the film itself finally does also, as the last scene eschews any audio at all.

In The Wages of Fear, the scenes of the nitroglycerin-loaded truck are shot in this patient way also.  There are stationary shots of the truck moving slowly across the screen.  There are fixed shots that track with the truck along its slow journey.  There are seemingly endless shots of the truck’s wheels moving inch by inch through potholes and ruts in the road.  These shots are intercut with one another, and no single shot is terribly long, but the sense is of slowness and tension and apprehension.

In all of these ways, and in many others also, the cameras of these films are patient.  They do not cut or shoot for speed simply because speed is possible.  They take their time in order to create a filmic time and space in which the images and the characters and the dialogue can find a pace and a movement that is proper and that is visually effective.  They are not tempted into the illusion that only speed and activity are able to create interest.  They recognize that interest can also be found in stillness and silence, and that even greater interest can be created in the contrast between the two.  I am discovering, I think, that this kind of patience is the mark of a film worth seeing.

I have had a bunch of Spy apples sitting around for the last week or so.  They were meant to become pie filling, but the pumpkin pies went further than I thought they would, so the apples have remained, unneeded and unloved, on top of the refrigerator.  Something had to be done with them before they went bad, and that something, I decided this evening, was that I would make stewed apples, one of my favourite holiday recipes.  I know that it is not yet December and that I should still be resisting the onset of the commercially prolonged Christmas season, but it was an emergency, and this way you all get the benefit of a recipe that you can use when Christmas actually comes within reasonable celebrating proximity.

Stewed Apples

Melt half a pound or so of butter in a good sized stock pot.  Add the finely chopped peels of 8 or 10 clementines or the zest of 4 or 5 large oranges.  Add several sticks of cinnamon, several roughly cracked whole nutmegs, and two dozen or so each of whole cloves and whole allspice.  Saute this until the peel has had time to soften and the pot starts to smell amazing.

Add 8 or 10 pounds of cooking apples, peeled and sliced.  Cooking apples are those that resist falling apart when you cook them.  Northern Spys are a great choice because they have so much flavour.  Cortlands are good too because their flesh does not brown like most apples.  Ida Reds are another of my favourites.  Add enough brown sugar to sweeten the apples, but not enough to overwhelm them.  This will differ according to the tartness of the apples you are using.  Use your judgement, but err on the side of too little.  Simmer everything, stirring frequently, until the apples begin to soften.

Add two or three cups each of raisins and dried cranberries.  Keep simmering.  As the raisins and cranberries rehydrate, you will likely find that you need to add some fluid, again depending on the apples.  Apple cider is a safe choice, but rum works very well also.  You could also use orange juice, cranberry juice, or whiskey.  Feel free to experiment, but add the liquid gradually.  You want the mixture to be moist but not swimming.

When the apples have softened and the dried fruit has rehydrated, remove the pot from the heat.  Alternatively, you can also choose at this point to add a healthy dose of heavy cream and cook everything a little longer.  Either way is good.  You may eat it immediately after it is finished, but the flavours will only intensify if you leave it cooling on the stove overnight or let it rest even longer in the refrigerator.  It is great both cold and reheated, both as a breakfast or snack in itself and as a topping for cake or icecream.  I have never tried to can it properly, but it lasts quite a long time in jars in my refrigerator, and it tastes like Christmas whenever you happen to bring it out, even in November.

I saw this girl on the bus early Sunday morning after too little sleep.  What I saw in her probably says more about me than about her.

Her hair was cut at her chin, striving for a kind of boldness, but its whisps and curls made it fragile and uncertain, slipping down around her face as she leaned over her cell phone, drifting along the collar of her quilted black jacket.  She was clothed in blackness wholly, in black leather gloves and black wool skirt and black silk stockings and black patent shoes, and then, like blood, the redness of the scarf that split her blackness almost to the waist, a huge and ghastly incision, a wound that she had long ago given up trying to close, though her gloved hands, leathered and black, kept fluttering up, convulsively, to brush at the redness that spilled from her coat and chest, then down again to her skirt and tights, then up again to the colour oozing at her throat.  She is dipping her fingers in blood, I thought, to write her incantations, hesitant and wavering, on her arms and stomach and thighs, to inscribe the wards, now long belated, of her protection.

I stopped by a little thrift store on my way home from work.  I often do this.  I pick up a sandwich from a deli, and I eat it while looking through the used books in Bibles for Missions or The Salvation Army Store, a different place each week.  Today I struck gold.  Among several less exciting finds, I discovered first editions of two Somerset Maugham books: Catalina: A Romance and Great Novelists and Their Novels.  I am not an edition hunter exactly.  I am usually more interested in having a good solid copy of a book than in having a particular edition of it.  Even so, I appreciate the pleasure of finding something rare as much as the pleasure of finding something common, and today’s discoveries gave me much delight.

I read an interview with Werner Herzog in the Globe and Mail this morning.  I love Herzog, not just his films, of which I have seen too few, but his persona as a director, and the interview provides some fabulous examples of this persona at work.  For example, how many Hollywood directors are capable of an observation this articulate and this profound:  “I see a rigorous correlation between the explosion of instruments of communication, cellphones, the Internet, virtual reality, and the amount of human solitude, existential solitude. I can’t fully explain it, I can only observe it. More people are withdrawn, and they are incapable of real dialogue. The 21st-century will be the century of solitude.”  If more of our directors were capable of this kind of thoughtful reflection, if more of them were capable of articulating themselves half so well, perhaps we would have more films worth watching.

I had the opportunity to appear on CFRU‘s Family Matters show this morning, talking about fathers who stay at home and who homeschool their children.  Though both of my kids are preschoolers, which probably disqualifies me as a homeschooler in a technical sense, there are few enough homeschooling fathers that just my interest in the idea qualified me to appear on the show.  I am rarely as satisfied with what I say as I am with what I write, and this was the case again this morning, but it was an interesting experience for me, and I do not think that my comments misrepresent me.

Those who are interested in hearing the audio can find it in CFRU’s  Program Archive, but the site does not provide links to individual programs, so you will need to select “Sunday: 2009-11-21” from the initial list and then “8:00:00 – Family Matters” on the list of the day’s programs.

Since I posted on the work of writing in the age of digital replication, I have begun, finally, to read Lev Manovich‘s The Language of New Media, part of which relates to what I was addressing in that post.   My argument was essentially that a digital copy of a digital object “is always entirely identical to its original and to every other copy,” but Manovich proposes, among his several principles of new media, a principle of variability, which states that “a new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite variations.”

What Manovich means by this is that the same digital object can be, and often is, altered and modified according to the specifications of each user, so that each user has, at least in potential, access to many variations of the same digital object.  For example, the digital object of this post will be used to produce many variant digital objects by different users.  Some will read it through one or another feed reader.  Some will read it through this site itself.  Some will see it first in a search engine’s display.  These people will be using various browsers, various graphics drivers, and various operating systems.  All of these things will manipulate the original digital object and create a variation of it for the end users.

Now, Manovich’s principle and my own are not mutually exclusive, but they do emphasize two apparently opposing characteristics of the digital object, and they do raise the question of how exactly digital objects are related to the copies and the variations that are made from them.  In this respect, I would suggest that it is necessary to refine the idea of the copy as such, whether it is being used to describe digital objects or physical ones, and I would argue that every copy is distinct from its source object both in space and in time.  Whatever continuity there may be in the content of the object, in the words or the code or the images that it bears, it is always temporally and spatially discontinuous from every other copy.  Whether I am printing a new edition of a book or copying a file for a friend, the copy is always discontinuous from its original.

This distinction may seem obvious, but it is necessary to insist on it in order to realize the difference between how digital objects relate to their copies as opposed to how physical objects do so.  When I take a physical object, I can mark it, individualize it, make it more unique.  When I do so, I create an object that is new, in a very real sense, but one that is not temporally and spatially discontinuous with the one that it replaced.  When I add notes in its margins, or spill coffee on it, or put a dedication on its flyleaf, or bend the corners of its pages to mark my place, I make that object different from the object that it was, but this object is not discontinuous in time and space from the previous object.  This is what allows the user to fetishize the physical object, what makes it available to the user as an object of nostalgia or obsession. It is a new and unique object, but it is physically and historically continuous with the object of the user’s memory.  It takes a place in history.  It is, in fact, entirely irreplaceable.

When I make changes to a digital object, however, these changes do not modify an object that remains continuous with the one that was changed.  Instead, they always create an entirely new digital object.  There is never any way for the digital object to be changed except to be created as entirely new.  It can only be the source for a new object that is in every case entirely discontinuous spatially and temporally from the one that preceded it, and this new object can only be identical with the source object or not.  It has no other way to appear.  There will never be the digital equivalent of coffee stains or bent corners, because any such interventions become embodied in the new object itself.  Even if it replaces the object that preceded it, it is a new and discontinuous object.  Even if it maintains a history of the changes that have been made to it, it is a new and discontinuous object.

It is precisely because digital objects function in this way that they can be made identical, producing copies that are able to replace their originals in every respect.  One copy is a good as another.  So long as they are copies, any one will do.  This is why, while it is still possible to fetishize the function and the history of a digital object, it is never possible to fetishize one copy of this digital object over another.  It is possible for me to have nostalgia for a digital song or computer program, but one copy of these objects will always be as good to me as another, because they will always be entirely interchangeable.  They will never have dog ears or creases or stains that make them identifiably mine and identifiably a part of my history.  They will always remain invisible to my memory and to my history and to my nostalgia.

What Manovich’s principle of variability recognizes, therefore, is the ability of a particular digital object to be manipulated endlessly, but what it fails to recognize is that these manipulations are not variations of the original digital object at all, but entirely new digital objects in themselves.  Though they have used the original object as a source, they are no longer continuous with it spatially or temporally.  In other words, exactly counter to what I quoted from Manovich in my opening paragraph, a new media object is indeed fixed once and for all, however many further objects might use it as a source.  It cannot, as Manovich claims, exist in potentially infinite variations.  It can only be a source for a potentially infinite set of new objects.  While a physical object might potentially exist in many ways as it becomes subject to the alterations of time and space, this is precisely the thing that the digital object can never do.