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!).