Monday, May 30, 2011

Laconia


It’s been two years since James Bridle produced the first volume of his life in tweets, probably the first Twitter memoir in print. There had been books of tweets before, and there have been many more since – some of them reviled, some of them inspiring a certain amount of justifiable awe, all of them conspicuously and sometimes precariously balanced on the (l)edge, the fluid boundary where the old medium ends and the new one begins.


The two towers under construction on the cover of Masha Tupitsyn’s latest book of and on film criticism are an explicit homage to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose famous declaration that ‘architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together’ serves as the fittingly aphoristic model for Tupitsyn’s approach to constructing the book. Each of the 1,200 tweets that make up the edifice of Laconia is a carefully placed brick, and the book itself, the authors explains, is ‘in essence, an architecture of thinking’ (1).

At first reading I was a little put off by this introduction. I wanted the book to do the things that Tupitsyn said it would do, rather than announce it would do them. I suppose it doesn’t help that I am a compulsive reader of introductions. But I’ve since come to view those theoretical statements as the necessary foundations of Laconia, the key to its becoming an object to think with.


A book is a thing, even as it most often invites us to think of its content as abstracted knowledge not bound to its physical carrier if not as a matter of historical and economic accident. A Twitter feed, on the other hand, is nothing if not an abstraction. We would never point to the server where it is stored in the form of electromagnetic patterns – if we were even able to locate it – and say ‘there it is’. Instead we call it up on our computer screen by means of a highly coded, almost ritualistic invocation, our new kind of magic. There it is. And so Laconia is also the desire ‘to make something tangible and resonant in an increasingly immaterial world’ (4).

But on one count Tupitsyn is incorrect: Laconia, as of the time of this writing, doesn’t quite exist ‘in two places at once and in two different forms’ (4). Its original instantiation, the sequential Tweet feed used to compile the book, has either become functionally inaccessible or vanished altogether. Not only it is no longer possible to find an access point to the feed itself, but you would search the Web in vain for those 1,200 tweets, except – ironically enough – as fragments of Laconia’s searchable entry in Google Books.


And so we come to that paradox that the Bridle experiment had already highlighted from the moment it came into being: namely, how the medium of print, even as it is more and more feverishly being declared obsolete, becomes a repository and keeper of native digital information, a place where bits come to be saved.

This has some further implications due to the peculiar nature of the Twitter feed, for which I’m going to gesture – with the intention of expanding on it very soon – towards the idea of a bottomless text. As a narrative that in the reading slowly unravels backwards in time, the Twitter feed is interestingly implicated in our always evolving concept of memory (think Memento rather than, say, Benjamin Button). Except one soon comes against the medium’s own amnesia, in the form of Twitter’s footnote to most searches that ‘older tweets are temporarily unavailable’, where ‘older’ often means as little as two weeks ago. The brilliantly cryptic and elliptic wording suggests that it’s not that the information has slipped out of the archive, but rather that it is there, but cannot be retrieved for the moment. Thus the foundational myth of the age of computing – that digital information lasts forever – isn’t completely undercut (the text is still bottomless, if only in theory), but just deferred to an unspecified future, possibly the same future in which we are to reap some of the long-promised transformative social and economic benefits of the new medium.


However to evaluate Tupitsyn’s work solely as a printed book, with its comforting physicality and its rough edges, would be just as limiting, for Laconia as a rhetorical experiment does indeed exist between media, in an interstice from where it interrogates writing, and writing about film more specifically, as a heuristic process.
LACONIA doesn’t just dramatize the thinking process. It dramatizes the act of thinking through film. For me, film isn’t simply what I think about or write about, it’s the medium through which I discover and articulate what I think. (2)
In this respect the practice of daily writing and the platform that enabled this sustained process (criticism as a form of living, as Tupitsyn calls it in the dedication to film critic Robin Wood) is the book’s true subject, and Laconia’s economy of expression – itself a counterpoint to the ritual complaints that the web in general and Twitter in particular are primary producers of meaningless chatter – becomes the lens through which to observe other acts of making culture. ‘What is it that we need to say and what is it that we don’t,’ asks Tupitsyn, and ‘how much “art” do we really need’ (2)? Regular readers will now just how fond I am of both of these questions.


While the introduction is very quotable, it is more difficult for the reviewer to usefully sample the content of the book proper, for Tupitsyn’s aphorisms curiously resist being taken out of their discursive context. I thought it might be apt to offer some of them as images, in the way that Twitter conversations are often presented inside of blog posts, adding a layer of unsearchability to their notorious aversion to being archived, but these are not meant to be any more representative than any other more or less random selection. The style is less cutting than Morando Morandini’s – to mention another critic with a highly cultivated and near-legendary gift for brevity – and reminded me rather of Philip Matthews, whose Twitter feed and blog are excellent examples of the genre in both the epigrammatic and, occasionally, the long-form style. Another point of comparison might be the near-daily, ultra-minimalistic vignettes of If We Don’t, Remember Me. Thematically, the principal effects are to highlight form, politics and gender, along the axis of the key transformations in the cinema of the last four decades. And it’s a text that hangs together surprisingly well, off the web, pruned of the retweets and the mentions and the interjections, that is to say of the social in the social network. In other words it’s a very good read, which is something I wouldn’t want to get lost amidst all the theorisin’.


We’ve heard this week an excellent discussion by Zeynep Tufekci on the re-emergence of oral psychodynamics in social media, framed as a response to Bill Keller’s invective contra Twitter in The New York Times. It was an effective take-down, but Tupitsyn’s book suggests that social media are every bit as much about reasserting the primacy of literacy as they are about heralding secondary forms of orality, and reminds us that Twitter is also a vast real-time writing experiment. Explore on any given day a top trending topic without actual news value (say, #junewish) and you’ll find hundreds of variations on a theme, exercises in style and rhetoric through which the respective authors discover and articulate what they think. It’s nothing less than criticism of life as a form of living, and it doesn’t always need to become a book for us to say that it has value.





Masha Tupitsyn. Laconia: 1,200 Tweets On Film. Winchester and Washington: Zer0 Books, 2011.

I came to Zeynep Tufekci’s essay by way of Alan Jacobs’ blog.

In keeping with the mandate to advertise my adventures in publishing outside of this place, the Bill Direen-edited Brief #42 is out, and I can be read therein alongside the likes of Scott Hamilton, Jack Ross and Pip Adam (Pip Adam!).




9 comments:

Philip said...

criticism of life as a form of living

There must be a word ending in qatsi for that.

Word Verification: bingiont, bling which has got out of hand, big time.

George D said...

It strikes me that the recontextualisation of a directly communicative medium - that is to say, a medium in which both the speaker and the receiver are in a relationship signified by following - into a singular one, is a huge leap. But then, of course the aphoristic nature of the tweets selected presents a great deal of meaning that quantifiable outside this context.

Ironically, I lost attention while reading Laconia through Google Books. It isn't that each tweet isn't good. It is that they contain too much information. Each one is a world, either referring to a film or work I know (or at least can place contextually), or have no real knowledge of. The intellectual reflection that each one brings is sufficient to render the practice of reading the book in large sections difficult, at least without abandoning them as messages and instead seeing them as the progression of time, much as one would read a diary for events, rather than any deeper interaction.

One another note, I have 800 people follow me on Twitter, with spammers and people of doubtful virtue assiduously removed. This is a full 163 more than Tupitsyn (lifeasweshowit) and I honestly do not know - perhaps I'm more relational, engaging in practices of following, @ replying, and other social interaction across multiple spheres. I do not say this to boast, twitter followers are an abitrary representation of anything. What is more important is that ideas receive audiences. I am glad to have been given one, even if I am often unsure what to do with it as my interests widen and move and my followers become more disparate.

What worries me (and I am hardly alone in this concern, Giovanni expresses it yourself in this blog) is that instead of an open protocol, tweets are inherently proprietry - once they have been signed over to the company they do not exist outside their world. Twitter have of course explicitly denied the right to their copyright "your tweets are your own, and always will be" or some similar public reassurance. But the expensive purchase of Tweetdeck, the most popular client, and crucially the one that offers greatest ability to exploit other forms of communication with the medium, was to reassert control over the ecology of interaction.

Uncollected thoughts. Much like twitter, really.

George D said...

Above is why the tiny text window on blogger needs to be destroyed. I press post, and then see what I've written.

George D said...

Tupitsyn: "I just got the dream book review of my life." Criticism as a form of living.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Tupitsyn: "I just got the dream book review of my life." Criticism as a form of living.

Yes, I was just reading that. It's brilliant.

"The idea of a radiant wholeness only elusively possible through fragments is an apt way of thinking about LACONIA. But Büchner was also a radical left-wing writer—anti-ruling-class, anti-Cartesian, anti-systems—deeply disturbed and disillusioned by the viciously unequal and exploitative social order of his day. This is the the political context of both his mournful idealism and his recourse to the fragment; LACONIA‘s context is comparable. The book’s radical and engaged nostalgia (about New York in the 70s, about real noses and faces with character, about pubic hair, about mystery, about real love) is also a radical and engaged anger, indignance and grief. What has been lost? And what can be recovered?"

Giovanni Tiso said...

"Ironically, I lost attention while reading Laconia through Google Books. It isn't that each tweet isn't good. It is that they contain too much information. Each one is a world, either referring to a film or work I know (or at least can place contextually), or have no real knowledge of."

I would say that Google Books is precisely the wrong place where to read Laconia. I don't think I'm revealing an industrial secret by stating that I read the book in the act of proofing it, with the heightened and possibly deformative attention to presentation that that requires, but even so, setting matters, form and technology matter. The incomplete version on Google Books is good for searches and nothing else, as the reviewer on The Big Other hints at, and I would say in the case of Laconia especially, in spite of its being ostensibly a collection of aphorisms, you really cannot make sense of the whole without the missing bits.

Giovanni Tiso said...

One another note, I have 800 people follow me on Twitter, with spammers and people of doubtful virtue assiduously removed. This is a full 163 more than Tupitsyn (lifeasweshowit) and I honestly do not know - perhaps I'm more relational, engaging in practices of following, @ replying, and other social interaction across multiple spheres. I do not say this to boast, twitter followers are an abitrary representation of anything. What is more important is that ideas receive audiences. I am glad to have been given one, even if I am often unsure what to do with it as my interests widen and move and my followers become more disparate.”

You also follow 998 people, versus her 301, which suggests to me that yes, you are likely to be more relational, and the net balance might say something about who has an audience and who is part of a group discussion – not that I’d want to make value judgments about that either. At any rate I don’t think the arithmetic tells you much about the level of engagement and attention of your followers and hers, or anybody else’s. In that, as in many other things, including blogs, it’s not so much how many people read you, but how, and that's not easily measured, by which you know it's the truly interesting question.

harvestbird said...

ποίησις!
poème
#poem

and my concen-
tration
scatter
(
shot)

Ah,

too many sparrows twittering into the dawn

... The deep, blue and unborn colour


say, say, /seɪ/,
all present,

#tense

iteratively
demarcated
in the flow

ἀφορίζω!

Montag said...

It is very Wittgenstein: it resembles his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" with its brief statements.

It also resembles the compilations of the remains of the Ancient Greek Philosophers and Lyric Poets; I have spent time pouring over ancient Tweets in the Loeb Library "Lyra Graeca"...
reading scraps of Sappho's vanished poems: "...more golden than gold..." and wondering.

ShareThis