THE TOWER OF BABEL
Ciao to the new year and its gaping void! I have an ambition to blog frequently this year, or more broadly, as I keep telling my friends, who roll their eyes at me, to spend the year in the
writers' room, even when doing the inevitable and necessary programming and other chores. May I succeed and, dear reader, may you observe me succeeding.
I plan to discuss THE TOWER OF BABEL, the poet Jack Spicer’s incredible unfinished detective novel, and perhaps Auden’s THE GUILTY VICARAGE in this post, but first I want to remark a bit on the months that have passed since last I posted.
2021 In Review
I also began last year with the best intentions of blogging, but in March it emerged that I had been both blessed and cursed with funding to develop two apps by the end of June. I entered into an insane four-month sprint of programming and writing, which resulted in (a) CICADA GAMES, an ASMR AR audioplay and (b) SOOTHER, the prototype of a whispering AI voice companion.
CICADA GAMES as an AR app is pretty much a one-and-done thing unless I become newly enthusiastic about programming Unity, which was, for me, a slog for many reasons that I will not here detail. The idea of AR audio and AR plays is still very interesting to me, particularly for developing theatrical, geographically-anchored works that allow a variety of spatial auditory and visual experiences – BUT I’m all about the Joy of Programming these days, and I have to say that I don’t find the Unity experience particularly joyful.
However, with cicadas I am not yet finished, as I am continually finding more relevant plotlines in the course of my browsing. I feel like there is somewhere else to go with cicadas, but I can’t yet get there. I would even say that CICADA GAMES itself is not a great execution of the cicada story that it tells: the accreted iconography, the characters, the plot itself – they get lost in the whispering and the often arcane verse. And that’s intentional – I designed the play like this in order to play out theories about ASMR: I wanted to see what the experience of a complex and carefully constructed plot would be when it was the SECONDARY focus. (The PRIMARY being the “noise” and the enchantment of the whisper, a very heavy medium.)
I started working with ASMR because I was in a crisis of language and the phenomenon represented a space that could be filled with ANY content – it didn’t matter what I was saying if I said it in the right tone (a whisper). But in the process of creating CICADA GAMES, I found again my writing voice and stories I wanted to tell, and ASMR is no longer the right medium for them – because they want forms that do not destroy them. I structured CICADA GAMES so that it would be like a fever dream that led into an absurdist, anti-human, diabolical screed that overexplained the mechanics of the dreamworld – but even this structure is lost in the monotony of the single-speaker whisper. What would be a better form for the story I tried to tell in the play? And for the other stories that branch out of it? I can’t figure it out.
About my AI Whisper I will say very little because it would be impossible to go into any detail and “keep it short”. It exists as a prototype. I ulitmately envision it as a voice companion that can play many different characters, as every good ASMRtist should. The voice itself should be re-trained and the chatbot that provides dialogue should be re-programmed. What will it speak? And who should it speak to? These are the first questions of my year.
Alongside the AI whisper comes a suite of works about its development, its source material, and a cracked-out (but entertaining, to me, any way) theory of poetics about the breath and the containers that enable a whisper – the jar of the lung, the tube of the throat: unobstructed, in a whisper, by the taut and open vocal cords. The internet we have known as a series of tubes; do the tubes play as flutes for the disembodied voice? And is the disembodied voice a vore that sucks the world through the tubes?
The rest of my 2021 looked similar to what is now the start of my 2022: I’m happily doing some strategy work and technology research with friends.
I’ve got a couple huge writing projects in the works but in an effort to keep myself focused, I’m shelving all of them except for a play for voices about HACKERS in Berlin c. 2013-2016 (e.g. the Summer of Snowden and its after-seasons through the establishment of Ethereum). It’s fun and also kind of evil, and I can see some intersection with the AI whisper, so I’m green-lighting it for now.
Otherwise, I’m reading a lot. I’m attempting to create systems for my writing and research so that I don’t continue hemorrhaging information and time. I used to have these in place, but my process has changed so much that the old ones no longer work. I’m getting back into pilates after injuries from krav maga (lol) and illness knocked me out of exercise for the better part of two months. And I’m trying – big resolutions ! – to be more spontaneous and less of a recluse.
THE TOWER OF BABEL (1958)
I was delighted to obtain a copy of Jack Spicer’s THE TOWER OF BABEL in the States, and I was equally delighted to read it during my 25 hours of travel back to Berlin from Denver.
By way of introduction, Jack Spicer (1925-1965) – poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, linguist, flatmate of Philip K. Dick, friend of Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, anti-Beat – published little while he was alive (he had a thing against major presses) but his works have been collected posthumously, mainly into MY VOCABULARY DID THIS TO ME , collected poems, and THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, collected essays.
The Tower of Babel is unfinished. Spicer wrote the first half to shop around to publishers, but never returned to it after a publisher was identified. There are several reasons for this, which Lew Ellingham and Kevin Killian, the editors, detail in the afterword: the beats' moment in SF had passed and satire of the movement was no longer necessary; Spicer had moved onto other projects, including his incredible serial work, THE HOLY GRAIL, which he claimed was transmitted to him by Martians; and – most poignantly – the sexual tension between the two main male characters had built to a point of breaking, which could not, in 1958, be written and published.
The novel ends with the death that traditionally begins a detective story. The ~150 pages before the death introduce a cast of characters, including the one who is to die, caught up together in the re-making of San Francisco’s art scene. The protagonist, John Ralston, is a poet who has returned to San Francisco after many years, having established himself as a professor at a prestigious East Coast univerisity, an “academic poet”, as he is dismissively labeled by the young members of the SF scene. He feels old, he feels washed up, and he feels he’s on the brink of writing a great work that really matters, which breaks out of his current context, which transports him. He decides that San Francisco is the right place to do this because it’s where he started his career, and it carries a certain vibe – a feeling of something that is beginning.
In San Francisco, Ralston is immediately confronted by the young scene and spends the bulk of the novel not writing poetry, but rather, grappling with his memory of SF vs its current reality. His first confrontation is with a young poet, Rudolf Talcott, who is rumoured to have arisen fully-formed out of the inferno of the American West: hopping freight trains, sleeping with anyone who comes across his path, rolling into San Francisco a manic mess scribbling embarassing poems that are given a solemnity by his life experience, his modest beginnings, his extraordinary presence and charisma. Basically, he’s the archetypal beat. In their first meeting, Talcott tears up a literary magazine that contains Ralston’s work, resulting in an argument during in which Talcott storms out of the bar only to return with a fish – still living and breathing – the mouth of which contains two pages of hand-written poetry. Ralston removes the poems from the mouth of the fish and, in retaliation, rips them up. It’s a mess! The sexual tension – you could cut it with a knife!
Later, Ralston reunites with one of his old friends and would-be lover, Madelaine Cross, an artist who married into the poetry subculture. Washington Jones, a young Black poet, has been accused of beating up another hanger-on of the scene, a white woman, the new girlfriend of Talcott. Ralston and Cross embark on a quest to clear Jones' name at the behest of Cross’s husand, who has a flair for social justice activism. At this point, the plot turns from an aimless catalogue of poets annoying each other at parties into a mini detective story, as Ralston and Cross try to figure out exactly where Jones was on the night of the attack. (In classic poet fashion, he’d gotten so high that he could no longer remember where he was that night, but insists that he cannot drive and so could not have driven the car in which the woman was attacked.)
Ralston and Cross go on a mad hunt around the Bay Area, comically asking strangers for information and ending up at a houseboat that belongs to the owner of a jewel shop. Improbably, they get what they’re looking for – confirmation that Jones almost certainly did not make it back to San Francisco in time to commmit the crime – but they’re delayed by an insane parable told by the shopkeeper about a medieval metalsmith who is coerced into service by a queen. It’s the kind of winding and absurd story that someone tells you when you’re eager to leave, and that’s the whole novel – we’re eager to get to the point – please, let us get to the point – we can’t yet arrive at the main event – we’re still delaying – we can’t write our poems because we have all this SHIT around us all the time keeping us occupied – all these PHONE CALLS and LETTERS and PARTIES which get us lost in our labyrinthine relations to other people – and it’s preventing us from doing what we want even as we think that it’s helping us. Or is it helping? Really the only the thing that’s clear is that we’ve been talking about this for too long. Eventually, Jones is discovered dead, and the novel ends without resolution.
In his infamous Vancouver lectures, Spicer argues that the poet must vacate himself and let his subconscious (or the Martians) move around the “furniture” of language in his brain. Spicer’s “detective novel” is actually about an established poet failing to do this – running from his poems, doing anything he can to avoid his poems, but then being led back to poems when he least expects it, when he finally lets go of the hope of writing them. As Spicer writes in one of his letters to a long-dead Lorca, a poet becomes caught up in life but always, knowingly or not, retreats to solitude, “encysting” the lived experience in his poems. This is how you transport the experience across time, Spicer writes, so that the future reader can feel a strong current of life beneath the surface of the poem, bubbling up but never breaking through.
THE GUILTY VICARAGE (1948)
I was prompted to read WH Auden’s THE GUILTY VICARAGE by THE TOWER OF BABEL, and given my Auden devotion, I’m shocked that I hadn’t before found the essay. It’s amazing. Go read it right now on Harper’s. What a total banger!
Auden argues that a detective novel follows the exact same arc as the Greek tragedy: the plot is set in motion towards a pre-determined end from the beginning, because the main action (the murder) has already occurred. What’s left is to bring the hand of the killer, which has already completed its motion, into the light. The detective novel then becomes an exercise in formulaic resolution of a particular cast: guaranteed exoneration of every innocent, condemnation of every criminal, and justice for any and every corpse.
THE GUILTY VICARAGE is Auden’s almost self-conscious attempt to prove that reading detective novels is not a kind of perversion or the reader delighting in violence, but rather, a search for cleansing – the reader searches for absolution in the plot’s eventual resolution, a cleanly-tied justice, which exonerates both the falsely accused and society as a whole (we are Good, we have a functioning mechanism for Justice). The essay argues that the detective has come to fill the role that was once the priest’s; detectives exist to absolve their readership.
Auden wrote the essay in 1948, a lifetime ago. For those who seek this societal/personal absolution, who are the detective-priests of today? I think of the QAnon “researchers” and other schizoaffiliates – they’ve taken on the detective role themselves, or collectively, almost without the need to externalise to a fantastic third party. It’s true that Q was the seed, but at this point, the posters control the show. It’s easy to see posters across the political spectrum stepping into the role of detective-priest – replying to insist on points, to “educate”, to combat what they see as the discursive manifestation of the deep and horrific crimes of “the” culture. By identifying a guilty party for a litany of morally abhorrent realities, they crawl towards an absolution that continually recedes in the chaos of the internet forum.
It’s probably worth it to read as many histories of the past two decades (or ten centuries) as possible to try to find a more measured perspective on our current chaos, which leads me to –
HACKER, HOAXER, WHISTLEBLOWER, SPY
I do think that the “detective-priest” role was not immediately passed to the schizoposter but rather had an intermediary in the hacker – specifically, the hacktivist – specifically, the Anonymous hacktivist. I’m re-reading Gabriella Colemna’s HACKER HOAXER WHISTLEBLOWER SPY, and I cannot say how much I am enjoying it. I first read the book on its release in 2014/2015, when I was in the MILEU OF THE HACKTIVISTS and, interestingly, found it completely unremarkable at the time. I think I was so drowned in the context of that world that I became blase, though I was always entertained and stimulated by hacker culture. I can only say that my first years in Berlin were spent in a perpetual state of shock. Any way, now that I have some distance from all of that, I’m returning to write my long-threatened series of hacker works and HHWS is incredible. I’m having such a laugh reading it.
But, to the point: I do think that Anonymous & their ilk had an outsize impact on the way that the internet is developing. I’m thinking also of Yancey Strickler’s now infamous re-working of Liu Cixin’s Dark Forest to describe the retreat of sub-cultures from advertising-based social media platforms into private communities. This is being framed as a new migration, but really it’s just the adoption of a more hacker-inspired communication techniques, invite-only communities gated for the sake of good op-sec and privacy. Is there writing about this? I haven’t managed to find it, but I also haven’t spent a lot of time looking. My guess is that what’s actually new is the introduction of the pay-to-play model, which private IRC channels didn’t have as far as I know. This is more complex than I’m letting on, but – this is a blog.
Any way, I’m boring myself here so I can only imagine that if any living reader has made it this far I’m boring you too! A good start for the first blog of the year. Cheers friends!