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.

1 comment:

Rue Des Quatre Vents said...

BTW: Rue Des Quatre Vents=Mike Gibson. I blog at, if you're interested. :)