Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Artistry of the Aggregator

How do you show the richness of your inner life? What is its evidence? The creators of WALL-E had this problem, though it's a problem we all face in some way or other. God only knows. Repetition. Conformity. Data entry. Norms of expectation. We all cloak the bull's eye lantern within us, to use a metaphor from William James. But despite giving WALL-E wide eyes that fold down like binoculars, or hands that clasp like a child saying "oh goodie!", the boys and girls at Pixar still had to devise a way for WALL-E to convey his love for EVE and the accompanying joy he felt inside. So they made him a collector of idiosyncratic things--bras, fire extinguishers, paddles, empty ring cases, hubcaps--naturally, of course, since he was meant to be a garbage collector, only now his personality flourishes with each discriminating choice. And it's remarkable how alive he becomes when he combines this stuff. One of the most marvelous scenes in the film is when he uses a hubcap as a top hat to mimic the dance in Hello, Dolly!

::::::Put on your Sunday clothes there's lots of world out there!::::

Anyway, all WALL-E wants to do is hold EVE's hand--if only he can touch it!!!--because that's what he sees in Hello, Dolly!. Collection. Combination. Mimicry. It's part of what makes him alive.

I mention this because I have to disagree with David Brooks's latest piece of cultural criticism. The old code of intellectual one-upsmanship has vanished, Brooks says. In its place has arrived a new code, the code of Higher Eclectica. Whereas an intellectual snob in the 60s might quote from the hierophants of High Modernism, the Eliots, the Pounds, the Trillings...or later the Derridas, the Foucaults, and de Man...nowadays anyone with any pretension to intellectual seriousness collects. But it's not just any kind of collection. It must, Brooks notes, contain "nuggets of coolness" from the "obscure niches of the culture market." Sez Brooks:
This [cultural] transition has produced some new status rules. In the first place, prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser. Inventors, artists and writers come and go, but buzz is forever. Maximum status goes to the Gladwellian heroes who occupy the convergence points of the Internet infosystem — Web sites like Pitchfork for music, Gizmodo for gadgets, Bookforum for ideas, etc.

My disagreement with Brooks begins with the observation that this is nothing new, certainly not in American literature. In fact, there is a deep and rich history to the artistry of the aggregator. The difference between then and now is that it's been democratized with the Web. It's also prospered. Take a look at this graphic from Kevin Kelly. It represents the profit-making elements of a Long Tail economy, whether it be songs, books, websites, movies and so on.
When explaining the Long Tail, Kelly points out that almost everyone makes a switch in what they're talking about. In pockets 1 and 2 in the graph, people talk about creators. But when people get to explaining the Long Tail in pocket 3, they switch and start talking about aggregators of other creators' work. "What happens to the creator?" Kelly asks. His answer:
The creator is dropped when we get to the long tail "pocket of profit" because the long tail is not profitable for the creator. It's profitable only for the audience and aggregators.

Kelly's talking about money making opportunities here, but Walt Whitman knew it applied equally well to poetry and the American experience. The poetry of yesteryear focused on individual experiences crystallized in works by single creators. The principal object, Wordsworth had said, was to choose incidents and situations from common life. But Whitman lit up the American sky by showing that there was poetry in aggregating, seizing upon the diverse ways of life and then laying it down for the record. The aggregator is also a creator--that's Whitman's genius. What is Leaves of Grass but a collection of nuggets from the "obscure niches of the culture market"? The interminably long lists of places, nouns piling on nouns, and gerunds flying this way and that, the pay off in sheer size and diversity--it's like he was writing a blog. (It was this thought that led me to combine two things in my previous post: Whitman and the gorgeous collection of old photographs I recently came across here.)

Nor is Whitman alone in this regard. T.S. Eliot, chief priest of modernism, darling of the old snobbery, mastered the artistry of the aggregator as well. The "heap of broken images" that is the Wasteland, all the allusions, quotes, the verbal collage--it's all a prayer against the fear represented by "a handful of dust," the fear that all of life's experiences may never amount to anything, that the whole will always be equal to, never more than the sum of its parts. The poem is paradoxical because what we collect, however haphazardly, comes to mean something, or at any rate, yearns to.

Does the aggregator create something of value? Is he an artist? I left the movie WALL-E sharing in that tiny robot's joy. I tend to think so.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Aggregating Whitman, Words 1856, Pics 1941

Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walk of dreams,
I fear those realities are to melt from under your feet and hands;
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you.
What widens within you, Walt Whitman?
Each of us inevitable, each of us limitless
Each of us allowed the eternal purport of the earth
Flood-tide of the river, flow on!
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more
to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships,
And the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked.
These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I project myself a moment to tell you--also I return.
What is it, then, between us?
It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also.
Now I am curious, curious what gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman
or man that looks in my face
Thrive, cities! Flow on, river! Frolic on, crested and scallop-edged waves!
We descend upon you and all things, we arrest you all,
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I am good-fortune.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

At the Olympics: One Song, Two Girls

This story from the Wall Street Journal about lip syncing at the opening ceremony instantly reminded me of my adolescent years when it was revealed to me that the female voice in C & C Music Factory belonged to a large, off-camera woman, not the skinny woman moving her lips and hips in the popular "Gonna Make You Sweat" video.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Nine-year-old Lin Miaoke became an instant global celebrity when she ostensibly sang "Ode to the Motherland" Friday night, clad in a red party dress and her hair in pigtails. But the voice heard around the world was that of 7-year-old Yang Peiyi. Officials have said that while Ms. Yang's voice was "perfect," Ms. Lin's appearance was more suitable.

For a trip back to the early 90s with the C & C Music Factory, go here.

Image: screenshot from "Gonna Make You Sweat" Youtube video

Monday, August 11, 2008

Beans and Greens, part 2.

The farmers' market in Harvard Square finally had some shell beans.  I think these are borlotti beans, also called cranberry beans.  Pretty, speckled little things.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Will somebody please buy me this?

This adorable little wooden alarm clock wakes you up with the smell of fresh bacon cooking. If every morning started with a piece of sizzling bacon, I would be a very happy girl.

image from

Saturday, August 2, 2008

James Wood On Forgery

What are verbal fingerprints? Style, for one thing. In his latest work of criticism, James Wood mentions a test the poet Glyn Maxwell and perhaps W.H. Auden would use in their poetry writing classes. Maxwell would present Philip Larkin's poem "The Whitsun Weddings," with some of its words blacked out. (The poem recalls how Larkin's otherwise perfunctory train ride happened to coincide with the departure of newlyweds from their wedding parties in village towns, the train repeatedly leaving behind a confusion of family and guests on the platform.) Let's give Maxwell's test a try here, using one stanza, blacking out certain adjectives, adverbs and nouns:

All afternoon, through the XXXX heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and XXXXXXXX curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, XXXXX-XXXXXXXXX cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial XXXXX;
A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of XXXXXXXXXX cars.

Maxwell would tell his students the syntax of each missing word and how these words filled out the meter of the line. His students then had to fill in the blanks. Call it MadLibs for poets.

Wood focuses on one line. "A hothouse flashed XXXXXXXX: hedges dipped..." We're missing an adverb with three syllables. The line depicts the view out Larkin's window as he travels.

It's not clear to me what Wood means to illustrate with Maxwell's test. So far as I can tell, it's a brilliant way to demonstrate style, particularly as it concerns diction. The test forces us to appreciate the missing word. And it's a testament to Larkin's ability how surprising each choice is. But what the test doesn't do is measure the talent of the aspiring poets in Maxwell's class--for only Larkin was on the train that day and therefore only Larkin knew what the hothouse looked like as it passed by him at some 50 miles per hour. And even if we were there with Larkin that day, we wouldn't have seen it the same way. That's where the poem's genius lies: the play of mind upon world.

As it happens, Wood reports that not one student has ever filled in the correct word in the hothouse line. For Larkin, the hothouse flashed "uniquely." The students have all grasped at straws. Larkin's use of "uniquely", Wood then concludes, is unique. Which is cute, but it's no mark against others that they haven't supplied the same adverb. For one thing, I imagine they're sitting in a classroom when given the test. Would it be different if the test were given on a train traveling the same route Larkin took? The longer I consider Maxwell's test, the more it seems it's a test for forgers and not for poets. And ultimately it raises some interesting questions about artistic value. Would a student's poem, which had replicated Larkin's verbal fingerprints all over it, be of the same value as a poem by Larkin? I don't think so, but I'll have to spell that out another time.

Think of it another way. Consider an artificial intelligence that spews out versions of the poem. And suppose further that with each iteration, the program learns how to make each word choice more Larkin-like, as based on an extrapolation from every word used in Larkin's corpus and the teacher's feedback. Is there any point at which the machine would produce poems of commensurate value with Larkin's?

What's confusing is that the experience said to underlie the poem could be fiction. Maybe Larkin never rode the train that day and therefore the hothouse never flashed. In that case, is there any difference between Larkin producing the poem and an artificial intelligence programed to imitate his style?