Sunday 20 April 2003

Art’s emotional charge

What a strange feeling, waking up on a drizzly Sunday morning to find oneself characterized as callous and manipulative, someone not to be trusted, the sort who would betray a troubled friend by disclosing information given expressly in confidence.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a photographer, I was fortunate to have as an assistant a young woman who is now an acclaimed and highly respected artist. We spent all our working hours either photographing other people’s art or discussing our own. I once asked J how she knew an idea for a project was worth pursuing. She replied without hesitation:

“I know it’s something I have to do when my own first response to an idea is ‘No, I couldn’t possibly do that. It’s too risky. It’s too difficult. It reveals too much about me. It will offend too many people…’”

I knew instantly what she meant. The unconscious throws up a fascinating idea and our first impulse is to reject it, for all the reasons J listed and others too: it’s unfashionable, it doesn’t fit within an accepted genre, it breaks the rules, curator X won’t like it (art practice—both conventional and avant-garde—is in many ways as constrained as life under the Taliban).

J was saying, obliquely, that the objections raised by her conscious mind were a direct indicator of the emotional charge of the idea. The trick—and she understood this equally well—was to harness that energy, to marshall all one’s technical skills in packing the work with these psychic associations.

The primary danger in such an approach is of creating épater les bourgeois art, art whose main purpose is its calculated effort to shock those with (what the artist regards as) conventional values—Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ comes immediately to mind. An audience’s only defence against such “art” is to judge the body of work, rather than individual works, over time.

I believe the same idea can be inferred from Steve Himmer’s explanation of the importance of reading a weblog in context, over time:

When we read an isolated essay, by Annie Dillard, maybe, we read it as a discrete, ‘closed’ unit—there is no context unless we set out to find that context elsewhere, in biography and criticism. A weblog, on the other hand, is all context—every post we read is read through the lens of the other posts we’ve read, and if you only read one post from a blog you’re not reading the blog—which as a whole is the text, not the individual post. Why does this matter? Because what the weblog offers, unusually, is the element of time: both the work and its author are able to change and shift over time, trying out new positions, refuting them, reclaiming them; trying on voices and faces. As readers, though, we have a unique opportunity to read through this play of time: unlike the novel, complete between its covers, the physical author reduced to a cypherical ‘author’ composed of the publicly-traded values assigned to that author, we are able to watch an author/text interaction occur in real time. It’s a different way of writing, and it requires a different way of reading. It requires us to learn, over time, how to read Jonathon Delacour or Shelley Powers or Stavros the Wonder(ful)chicken—they don’t know, as authors, all at once who they are, so why should we, the readers? Like Joyce said, more or less, it took him years to write a novel; it should take at least as long to read it.

Implicit in Steve’s argument is that it is the audience’s responsibility to discover context, just as it is the artist’s/writer’s/blogger’s responsibility to act in good faith.

Explicit in Dorothea’s criticism of my Ikuko post/story is the acccusation that, by blurring the line between fact and fiction in a weblog, I acted in bad faith and am, accordingly, not to be trusted.

The Happy Tutor saw it differently. Responding to Dorothea, he wrote:

Some of us today believe that most of what we are fed by popular news and culture is a fiction, created by Knaves for Fools, and that these false seemings work because most readers are good-hearted, ignorant, and gullible. Hence, we Teachers adopt the stratagems of indirection, creating elaborate and absurd canards and defending them with all the energy of Ari Fleischer. If you can read us well, and see through us, you are prepared to read the daily papers.

An admission: I was “bit” by Delacour’s tale of Ikuko. What helped me as I thought about it was my sense that he is a moral man — and that no one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy. So, I was forced to conclude that his Ikuko was just another street-walker from the Ginza, where lost souls of that name are found on every corner.

As did Liz Lawley. In a comment on my post, Alibis and consistent lies, Liz wrote:

I’ve been floating around virtual communities and computer-mediated communication spaces for a long time, and I long ago gave up any attempt to separate truth and fiction…

On some level, all we have are situation-specific personas. The persona I project in the classroom where I teach is quite different from the one I display in the classrooms where my children learn. The woman my husband knows and loves is in many ways not the same woman who goes out dancing with her girlfriends.

It’s too simplistic to see it as simply onion-like layers, which can be peeled away to find a core of truth. The reality is far more complex and multi-dimensional.

I do believe that there are relationships in which we come very close to the “real” person. But even when we don’t, there’s plenty of room to take pleasure in the interactions. I still like the persona you display here. I don’t feel betrayed by any revelation that not everything you write is literal truth…it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a hell of a writer, and your words bring me pleasure every time I read them.

Interesting that so much of the conversation has revolved around the Ikuko post. I remember being quite struck by that post, myself. Like the Happy Tutor, I suspected that it was too intimate in its detail to be entirely literal—the persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint to share so much detail about another person in such a cavalier way. But that didn’t change my enjoyment of the story. I wonder now if I remember it so well because of my doubt of its “truth,” or my appreciation for its truth?

“The persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint.” “No one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy.” I could hardly have described myself in those terms—in the sense that, even though I carefully circumscribe what I write about my everyday life, it came as a shock that Liz and the Happy Tutor (correctly) interpreted that absence of detail as evidence of my essentially private nature. It appears that they, who “know” me only from what I’ve written, know me—in a fundamental way—as well as my closest friends.

That Dorothea cast the Ikuko post in a different light is best taken, from my perspective, as evidence of the emotional charge associated with blogging fact and blogging fiction. Although I can assert that, in blending fact and fiction, I am neither acting capriciously nor in bad faith, this assertion is unlikely to satisfy Dorothea and its truth (or otherwise) will only be revealed over time and in context.

Context is everything, I agree, though not in the sense that Dorothea meant when she wrote:

Context. Context. Context. In a basically self-revelatory context, I expect self-revelation, not roleplaying games. Now, to burn another straw man, I’m quite aware that not all blogs exist to be self-revelatory, and I don’t have any particular bone to pick with that, either. I just want to know, one way or the other, what to expect. If a blogger picks the pothole-ridden road of self-disclosure (and we all know how big and bad and black those potholes can be!), I genuinely prefer not to suddenly read about invented people on that blogger’s blog as if they were real.

All I can say is this: there are many strategies of self-revelation and that if Dorothea wants “to know, one way or the other, what to expect” then, should she choose to read on, she must expect not one or the other but both: self-disclosure and invented people.

In that regard, the Happy Tutor was only partly correct about my being in a transitional phase:

To take the conversation one step farther, what of counterfeits that are meant not to be unmasked, but to pass “coin of the realm”? That was, I think, what made Jonathon’s post, maybe, “transitional.” It wasn’t clear that it was meant to be seen as a fiction, or that we were gradually meant to wake up to its fictional strategies. And having discovered that we were fooled, there does not seem to be a particular point that ties back to the story — not moral “aha so that is what he was driving at.” This is not a criticism, really. I think he is making a transition from essay to fiction, and has one foot in either genre.

Rather than making a transition from essay to fiction, I see myself as adding a fictional element to the essays and autobiography that already make up the bulk of my recent posts. There shouldn’t be any surprise in this, since I’ve alluded to it twice before. Firstly in my About entry:

Although this site may appear to be a weblog, it does not follow the conventions of journalistic truth that many bloggers adhere to. Rather, my desire is—to borrow Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—to crossbreed fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.

And again, more recently, in the post Riding easy in harness:

I feel similarly about the craft of writing and the debt I owe to certain Japanese literary traditions, particularly the zuihitsu, nikki, and shishosetsu, as well as to Fielding and Sterne, to Agee and Sebald, and—as The Tutor recognizes in his entry How He Rambles! - Freedom and Craft—to the classical English essayists: Addison, Chesterton, Hazlitt, Johnson, and Lamb. In other words, to writing which, in Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.”

Thus it appears that, in addition to having a foot in each of the fiction and essay genres, I have a hand in the autobiography genre, and five fingers free to tap out my weblog entries. With the proviso that, as Steve pointed out, I don’t know, as an author, all at once who I am or what I’m doing. Brecht said it best:”You never know where you are with production. Production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”

If the party line is that fiction, essays, and autobiography shouldn’t appear in the same weblog, then I can only borrow Steve’s line and say: “I guess I didn’t get invited to that party.” I’ve been thinking and dreaming about this ever since I stopped photographing, fifteen years ago. Rightly or wrongly, it seems entirely legitimate to simultaneously love the weblog form and wish to employ it in the service of art rather than journalism. Fiction, essays, autobiography… Burningbird nailed it when she suggested that this is “the real Jonathon’s writing.”

In another post, Dorothea wrote that she never claimed or even seriously wanted to be an artist and perhaps therein lies our difference; because I—apart from my youthful desire to be a soldier—never seriously wanted to be anything else.

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Oh, dear. So much for thinking that if I posted in your comments, rather than linking from my blog, that I'd be able to do so without a lot of attention.

The fact that your posts have stired up so much emotional response is testimony to their power. J's words are right on target.

And on an unrelated (to the "truth and lies" debate) note, I find myself wondering if you've read Bourdieu at all. _The Rules of Art_, _Photography: A Middle-Brow Art_, and _Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste_ all come to mind. (All available in English translations from Amazon.)

Posted by Liz on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

(Last things first: Sorry this turned out to be so long.)

I dunno if this was Your intent, Jonathon, but You've pretty much confirmed all the points of what Dorothea said except one.

"If the party line is that fiction, essays, and autobiography shouldn’t appear in the same" piece of writing (as there's very little that makes weblogs unique)...

Well, whenever a person intra-relates with their environment on any level a-tall, all 3 are going on simultaneously. In a simply FASCINATING cocktail.

So what goes on in writing/speaking/whatever-Ya-do (365/6 days a year, 24 hours per day, 60 minutes per hour, 60 seconds per minute, and (according to some) 3 trillion "mind-moments" per second).. is a reflection of One's fiction/essay/auto-biography at that particular moment-in-time/space.

No problem here, fer as my eye can see. SURE, there's gonna be an element of fiction in ANY essay or auto-biography... But when fiction is purported to be essay when it's not, and essay is purported to be auto-biography when it's not...

Well, it'll be fine literature I'm SURE (especially in the hands of gifted artists such as a lotta You all)...!! But the essays'll be less-fine, and the auto-biography less-fine, especially if You decide to take this art-form of the cocktail approach within individual posts.


And here's the thing:

Even IF You make a most-diligent effort to separate the fiction from the essay from the auto-biography, these'll still be at least SOMEWHAT mixed, for the reason(s) You said above. (Dorothea Herself fessed-up that She wrote a piece in the third-person last year, which was actually auto-biographical. Because it was SO private and personal and intimate a situation that She needed to be presented it that way, at that time, but now doesn't.)

Brecht said it almost-best, as You ALWAYS know where you are with production, which is in the middle of it.. the future being unforeseeable. (That being the importance of looking at things of the long-term, but which is not a-tall unique to blogging. It's a fundamental way that people have ALWAYS used, in viewing situations.)

"I don’t know, as (a human being), all at once who I am or what I’m doing. You never know what’s going to come out."

I'm exceptionally naive, at times, and was flabbergasted at THT's and Liz' insight into this post...! (And apparently very not-well-read, as well...)-; But I'm not so upset by my naivety (sp?) as Liz, nor do I agree with Her that I wouldn't trust You personally, Jonathon.

But I'll be viewing all Your posts, from here on out, as fiction.. (MUCH moreso than I read the average writing/speech/actions of other folks). Because it's a SHARED responsibility between the reader and the author..

..this putting into context....

....and You've decided.. apparently because essay/auto-biography DOES, in fact, contain a certain amount of fiction.. that it's not sufficient that "the Truth is stranger (as in, more wonderous) than fiction". Although it's impossible to put anything in perfectly COMPLETE context, people will always vary (from moment to moment) with how much effort they wanna put into making the attempt, without compromising privacy.

(For example, I'm now gonna sacrifice some privacy to put all my posts in a more complete context: I'm hoping that Shell sees this post-a mine here, because it's entirely possible that I've e'd Her for the last time yesterday morning.. that being up to Her now, at this time. I enjoy the attention She's shined my way, but have gone as far as I can comfortably go, at this time, in asking for Her to give me some-a Her time/attention/insights.)


Small nit, (not with You or J, Jonathon), with Freud. Because He screwed up BIG-time with confusing terminology: What He referred to as the "unconscious" is actually the subliminal conscious.

Btw, Liz, I (just like all people) don't do ANYTHING for one, and ONLY one reason.. but, yeah.. that's one-a the big reasons I comment rather than blog.

Posted by jt on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"I’ve been floating around virtual communities and computer-mediated communication spaces for a long time, and I long ago gave up any attempt to separate truth and fiction…"

This, to me, is the problem in a nutshell. Sure, if you give up the attempt, the problem ceases to exist, and you can happily read poignant accounts of personal crises without giving a damn whether or not they actually "happened" to a "real" "person" -- what a primitive idea! This is not the place to go into that argument in depth; I'll just say, as an unfair aside, that I suspect the inhabitants of places like Iraq have a lot more interest in making the attempt, and probably a surprising amount of success in doing so. After all, if getting it wrong may get you killed, it tends to concentrate your mind.

Be that as it may, those of us primitives who do care about the distinction find it cold comfort to be told "If you can read us well, and see through us, you are prepared to read the daily papers." I can read the daily papers on my own, thank you very much; I go to personal blogs for a kind of discourse I don't get in the papers. If I'm going to get the same kind of obfuscation I get from the White House and the "news" sources, why bother?

If you're going to tell me a made-up story, a fiction, that's great; I love stories. If you knock on my door, tears streaming down your face, and tell me a heartwrenching tale of lost love, extract my sympathy and ruin my day, and I find out you were just trying on a persona or a prose style, I'll throw you out. If you're a friend, I'll probably still hang out with you once I get over it, but I sure as hell won't pay your stories much mind.

Oh, and as someone with a great deal of interest in language, it matters to me whether the Japanese actually do say iku for 'come' and whether a woman with the name Ikuko would actually get teased about it (do guys named "Malcolm" get teased about the "come" part?). If that had been a real story, I would have learned something that gave me pleasure to know. Since it's a made-up story, I've learned nothing except that the author of the story enjoys playing with words.

Posted by language hat on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Here, here's a little quiz. Go read this:
and tell me it wouldn't make any difference to you if you found out that the author's mother is alive and in perfect health.

Posted by language hat on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I remember when I read about Ikuko how much I enjoyed the story. I remember thinking, I wonder if this is true. I could ask I suppose, but it took no more than a moments thought to realize it simply didn't matter. In fact in many ways it was better like this. I've been reading what Jonathon has written for a long time now and whether what he writes is fiction or non-fiction or a combination I enjoy myself. I don't miss the train based on what he writes, my car doesn't run out of gas If something he writes that I believe is non-fiction turns out to be fiction. But I know him through his writing. I know that if he is writing to me in email that I can rely on what he is saying. I would expect it to be true, but when he is writing for an audience or simply to put his thoughts down on the page I have no need to know if what he writes is 'real'. I like it this way and I hope he will continue to write the way he has always written. I know I will continue to read and to enjoy his writing.

Posted by Norm Jenson on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Language Hat, despite the fact that the entire discussion has been framed in terms of context (judging a weblog over time rather than from a single post), for the sake of your argument I'll acknowledge that it would make any difference to find out that the author's mother was "alive and in perfect health" -- primarily because of the subject but also because of the tone and vulnerability of the text.

However, as Liz accurately pointed out, my own weblog is characterized by "privacy and restraint." I've never posted anything that personal nor would I wish to. Therefore, from my perspective -- though I have little doubt you will disagree -- I believe it unlikely that I would write a post that exhibits the kind of bad faith implicit in your quiz question.

Posted by Jonathon on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I agree that's unlikely, Jonathon, and I didn't mean to imply that you would. I don't think there's anything terrible about your Ikuko post in that sense (although I am disappointed for the reason I mentioned above, which wouldn't matter to anyone else). I do think there's something terrible about the idea that it doesn't matter whether statements are true or not, and it's an idea that keeps coming up in this discussion. There's a slippery slope between "I want to try out possibilities of self-expression, including fiction, and I trust my regular readers to know from context what's going on" and "Hey, it's the internet where nobody knows you're a dog, I can say whatever I want and get away with it!"

I grant you the importance of context, and perhaps you will grant me that a good writer might have created "the tone and vulnerability of the text" precisely for the sake of immediacy and believability, and be pleased to have fooled so many readers -- it shows true skill. (As the actor's anecdote goes, "When you can fake sincerity, that's when you've got it made.") I would be very surprised if that were the case, and very disappointed, and it's precisely that disappointment (which I think most people would share) that I want to emphasize here, because a lot of discussants seem to take the attitude that hey, it's all good! I don't think it's that simple. (And you might bear in mind that chunks of writing can be ripped out of context and sent around to face the world on their own; it happens all the time, and the authors run around trying to catch up with them, hollering "But I didn't mean it that way!")

But as I say, none of this is meant to be a slap at you or your writing. I'm a big fan of your blog. I just don't want the discussion (which I think is the most interesting thing happening on the part of the internet I frequent) to degenerate into mutual backslapping and general contentment. (If the consensus leaned more towards Dorothea's side, I'd probably be going on about the importance of art and experiment. I'm just an argumentative s.o.b.; ask my first wife.)

Posted by language hat on 21 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Language hat makes a good point that it would have been nice to know whether the info about her name was true - trouble is, even if the incident had happened, you still wouldn't know that. Jonathon could have reported a genuine conversation, but you would still have no guarantee that SHE hadn't been making it up...

Posted by Flurblewig on 22 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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