Archive for the Literature Category

Nanostories and the Hyper-massification of Culture

Posted in Literature, Reviews, Useful with tags , , , , on August 22, 2009 by xugro

There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the necessity of justifying the work of art. When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism.    –Ortega y Gasset

For a while now, I’ve been wondering about the consequences of our the Internet’s sheer multiplication of narratives and the radical democratization of cultural production that the web, along with powerful and ever-cheaper technology,  has engendered. What are the consequences for culture if everyone, potentially, can produce it? I can record high-quality music on my computer at home, just like millions of other would-be musicians, then distribute it around the globe through MySpace or a host of other sites–or distribute it on my own website, like the amazing band Deep Sea Summit. I can produce videos and send them to YouTube and, with a great deal of self-promotion and luck, reach an audience of millions. I can blog forever, alongside the legions of fellow bloggers. Yet the curmudgeon in me wonders whether the millions of bloggers in the world working on millions of laptops will ever produce a Hamlet. Or if a Citizen Kane could appear from the ashes of so many YouTube shorts. Or if a Goldberg Variations could be assembled from the collective effort of MySpace bands. Or if Wikipedia could ever be as all-encompassing as St. Isidore’s Etymologies or Pliny the Elder’s Natural History–it’s certainly as flawed.

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Piracy, Past and Present II: Content Pirates

Posted in Glosses, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2009 by xugro

As a follow-up to my last post about piracy, I wanted to write a bit more about the pirating of content, which has a history that’s as long and storied as seafaring piracy. The concepts of copyright and intellectual property are fairly new in jurisprudence. I won’t give a detailed history here, but rather speak to my own expertise in Renaissance-era history and literature in Spain.

The notion of plagiarism, moreover, did not exist in Cervantes’ time. In my post on Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, I discussed how map plates were often bought, sold, or simply reproduced in the race for the best atlas. Imitatio was an acceptable, even admirable exercise. Those who took lines from a famous poet, paraphrased or change them in some way, were not guilty of an offense but rather applauded for their deference to established authority. It was easy enough to reprint an unauthorized edition and flood the market with cheap copies of the same work, and such editions often got around the significant problem of royal or Inquisitorial censorship.

Authors of the early modern period were caught between models of patronage and an emerging capitalist idea of copyright. John Milton, for example, famously sold the rights to Paradise Lost for a pittance.

In the prefatory materials  to part 2 of Don Quixote, Cervantes worries that an “unauthorized” continuation of Don Quixote’s adventures–the “Avellaneda” Quixote from 1614– has hit the market before Cervantes’ own continuation (1615), causing “loathing and disgust” (Grossman’s translation). For Cervantes, this is not a financial issue, but rather one of authorship and creative control or authority over his creation–the characters aren’t really the same ones he envisioned. This claim stands in stark contrast to the first part of Don Quixote (1605), in which Cervantes states he’s the “stepfather” of Don Quixote and continually problematizes the concepts of text, authorship and authority.

Lope de Vega, a contemporary of Cervantes, was also concerned about unauthorized publications of his works, again not for financial reasons. Instead, Lope’s concern was about the integrity of his plays as dramatic and poetic perfection. Those who printed his works relied on audience members with questionable memory for poetry, and thus Lope prints his works to set the record straight.

Content piracy indeed existed, and it was questionable and possibly illegal. Yet it remained an alternative and widespread means of dissemination.

Fast-forward to the present. The music and movie industries scored a minor victory in the trial against The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing site whose founders are outspoken critics of intellectual property and copyright in particular. They envision a future in which content is unprotected and free to use, modify, and distribute worldwide. One of the Pirate Bay’s arguments during their trial was that search engines like Google provide essentially the same services–a searchable database  that can locate torrent files and enable the user to download copyrighted content free of charge.

Still, experts estimate that 95% of music is downloaded illegally. While the music industry and Hollywood have made some steps to modernize their business model, it’s clear that they’re living in the past. Lawsuits like the one brought against The Pirate Bay or individual users are aimed at recovering profits for record companies and movie studios, not artists. While these corporations insist they are making it safe for artists to create content, it’s obvious that drastic change must occur to make sites like The Pirate Bay unattractive. Legal threats haven’t changed the majority of how users obtain and share content. Accordingly, more and more acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are distributing their work for free, and making a living on special editions and live shows.

While online downloading via Amazon or iTunes, special editions, boxed sets, and DVDs aimed at collectors are doubtless good moves forward for content providers, current distribution networks (big box retail stores, record stores) are still an unreliable network in an age of instant access. That’s where sites like The Pirate Bay come into play.

File sharing portals are essentially the dark underbelly of their legal counterparts like Spotify, Rhapsody, YouTube, and the reformed Napster. As I suggested in the previous post, if Somali piracy is the evil twin of global capitalism, content piracy is the necessary inverse of our own culture of instant gratification. Hulu, Twitter, Facebook and The Pirate Bay are all variations on the same theme.

Piracy, Past and Present

Posted in Glosses, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2009 by xugro

Piracy has enjoyed a surge of attention in recent months, especially this past week as pirates based in Somalia unsuccessfully attempted to capture a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. Three pirates were killed and another is being held in custody while the heroic captain of the vessel, Richard Phillips, is free after a hellish ordeal. Yet pirates still hold over 200 hostages and continue to stage brazen attacks on merchant vessels at an alarming rate.

Things were not so different in Cervantes’ time, when piracy was a huge concern for nations with Mediterranean coastlines. Pirates of all nations terrorized coastal villages and took captives for the purpose of raising ransom money. Moreover, piracy was not limited to one region or religion. Cervantes, who was a captive himself in Algiers for years, writes of Christian, Muslim, and renegade pirates who would often claim whatever religion was convenient. The famed Knights of Malta and Francis Drake are two other examples of Christian pirates, reminding us that piracy was perceived as a legitimate activity if undertaken in the service of a sovereign state or military/religious order. Perhaps most fascinating about piracy in Cervantes’ time is that after the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in 1609 and afterward, Northern Africa became home to thousands of disaffected former Spaniards with an intimate knowledge of the country and its coast, many of whom became pirates. Piracy was a perfectly acceptable source of income for people of all nations and religions.

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Posted in Literature, poetry, Useful with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2009 by xugro

So my dissertation’s all done and turned in, despite the false start I had the day I submitted it. I’ve decided to publish the abstract online (full text available upon request) just in case there’s the off chance someone would actually read it. There’s more of a chance that someone would read it by stumbling upon it on the internet than when it’s actually published on microfilm or in book form. Whether the latter ever happens is another story.

I mean, I did spend almost three years working on it. Not that that makes it good. Anyway, hit the “read more” button for the abstract then a link to email me for the PDF of the whole thing.

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A Gloss on Beck’s “Loser”

Posted in Glosses, Literature, poetry, Reviews, Useful with tags , , , on March 26, 2009 by xugro

In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey

In the beginning, we were all nonhuman primates. And in that blessed age, I was not as great as the apes. I was smaller, less attractive, and thus less prone to mating. So I turned to drugs, but was not as financially fortunate as others. I was resentful of their success and access to higher-grade controlled substances, while I was stuck with inhalants. That’s why there is

butane in my veins so I’m out to cut the junkie with the plastic eyeballs

Moreover, I coveted their everlasting supply of high-quality organic nutrients culled from local forests. One night, I had an idea: I’d get back at them with with the very dope they had forced me to use. I decided to

spray paint the vegetables

Fast forward to the present. After terrible millenia of evolution, things are not much different for us beta males. The alphas are still in power, but do not feed their pets well; further, they are prone to transvestism. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find

Dog food skulls with the beefcake pantyhose

Sometimes I like the feeling of emptiness after a long day. I’ll drive around at night with the windows closed and tune the radio to white noise. If I chance upon a stretch that’s abandoned enough, I

kill the headlights, and put it in neutral

and imagine myself as a race car driver. Such fantasies ultimately backfire and end with me aflame,

Stock car blazing with the loser in the cruise control

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An Introduction to Ramon Llull

Posted in Literature, poetry, Useful with tags , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2009 by xugro

An Introduction to Ramon Llull (1232-1316)

Ramon Llull, known as Raimundo Lulio, Raymond Lully or Lull, was one of the most complex and original thinkers of the Middle Ages, yet he is also one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated.  Llull’s production covers nearly every genre of the time in three languages: Latin, Catalan and Arabic.  His output includes mystical works such as the Book of the Ascent and Descent of the Intellect in Latin and the Book of Contemplation in Arabic. Llull likewise published philosophical texts such as the Tree of Knowledge, scientific treatises like the New Geometry, and tractates on liberal arts such as logic and rhetoric. Finally, his output includes literary texts: novels like Blanquerna, an autobiography, and poetry. Exhaustive catalogues of his works list approximately 300 authentic ones, as well as dozens of apocrypha related to Cabbalism and Alchemy.  Due to such a monstrous output—incredible for someone who started writing around forty years of age—it is often difficult to approach Llull or to categorize his thought into a coherent system, earning him appellations such as “perplexing” and “confusing.” Adding to such confusion, Llull often feuded with his better-known Scholastic contemporaries in French universities because of methodological differences.  In spite of his idiosyncrasies, however, Llull is still unique to the point of being one of the most important thinkers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Born in Palma de Mallorca, Llull lived in a time when the Catalan Mediterranean Empire was at its apex. At the time, it included the kingdoms of Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia as well as the outlying zones of Naples, Sicily, Athens, and Sardinia.  The island of Mallorca itself, conquered in 1229 by the Aragonese king James I, represented a crucible of cultures.  On Mallorca, the three monotheistic religions interacted on a daily basis, a fact that undoubtedly influenced Llull’s formation and wish for dialogue between religions, a desire not shared by many of his contemporaries in Paris.  Mallorca, and the Balearic islands in general, served as an economic crossroads between Europe and Africa as well as a jumping-off point for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Rome.  Unlike the later Habsburg Empire in Spain, which absorbed the Catalan empire upon the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1479, the Catalan “emporium,” to use one scholar’s term, focused more on commerce and economic control than on territorial or imperial conquest.  It is no coincidence that this empire produces a key figure such as Llull at its very peak, in a manner similar to Cervantes or Virgil in the cases of Spain and Rome.  After his conversion, Llull traveled incessantly within Spanish and Catalan lands (Santiago, Barcelona, Naples, Mallorca); made several visits to Italy, taught in Paris and Montpelier, and made three missionary trips to North Africa. Llull’s travels form a crucial context for understanding his life and project.

Nine years after his first conversion experience, Llull (now aged 42) experienced another theophany on Mount Randa on Mallorca in which the “form and method” of his great Art (the Ars magna) was revealed to him.  Due to this divine inspiration, Llull would champion the Art throughout his life despite significant setbacks to its teaching in Paris and elsewhere due to its highly complex, technical and idiosyncratic nature; the divine nature of the Art would also allow Llull to claim authority. One of the problems with the first versions of the Art, states one scholar, “was that Llull was trying to translate the theological language of his Muslim and Jewish contemporaries into Latin and Catalan.” Llull, moreover, had little formal education. Yet in part because of these setbacks and in part due to its natural development throughout Llull’s life, the Art became a lifelong project in a manner similar to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The universal quality of Llull’s Art enabled him to overcome several obstacles: scholastic logic, interreligious dialogue, and dependence upon ancient authors.  As one scholar notes, the science of the Art, for Llull, was “the perfect vehicle for breaking through the intellectual boundaries between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Art’s function was to provide members of the three faiths with tools for true dialogue based on a terminology acceptable to all.” This approach avoided the pitfalls of the interpretation of sacred texts such as the Qur’an, since debaters could argue about these specific texts and thus retreat into a specific tradition or approach. Such a step, in fact, is more radical than it seems: Llull puts aside not only established authorities like St. Augustine, but also sacred texts themselves.  Instead, he relies on rational argumentation rather than discipline-specific jargon. Llull’s system, then, must be wholly original in order to stymie text or tradition-specific approaches to theology, texts and interpretation. The upshot of the system detailed in the Art is a ladder that uses specific attributes and sets of questions to aid the mystic in her process of ascent and descent.
Llull’s attempt to create a universal language, while ultimately ineffective as a tool for religious conversion, was an impressive achievement and incredibly forward-looking for a 14th-century religious scholar. His invention of computational logic in the Art would entrance philosophers like Leibniz centuries after his death. His pioneering approaches to computational logic earned Llull the somewhat dubious title as the founder of computer science. The Catalan language is greatly indebted to his literary accomplishments as well: according to one account, Catalan is a “language created by a philosopher—to which it owes its precision—who, in addition to a philosopher, was also a poet—to which it owes its beauty.” Despite his importance during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, little of Llull’s work is available in English translation. One hopes that work on Llull will continue, for he stands out as one of the most modern medieval writers.

Juvenalia I

Posted in Literature, poetry with tags , , , , , , on March 24, 2009 by xugro

Occasional verse on dish washing

Ballad of the Dish Bitch, Caput II

From whence doth come that awful sound,
that screeches in my ear?
an angst-rid’n cry for miles around
is what one deaf could hear.

I travell’d up into a house
that had a bar of Oake;
a young chap cringed upon the porch:
his spirit burnt and broke.

“Lo!” I cried, as old men do,
“what causes this dismay?”
“I woke up from the night before,
and I’m ‘DISH BITCH’ today!”

“How now, you dog,” I then cried forth,
can such a thing be you?”
“I’ve not been ‘dish bitch’ for a week,
and now the worst is true.

“We draw our lots and time draws near
we lose us in her folds;
but when the hour for dishes comes
our incense turns to mold.”

“My God, young man, is it so bad,
that you appear as such?”
“Kind sir, the truth is I’ve seen worse,
and this is not so much.

Our weeks slashed by that fateful day
we’re fain to ‘void its pangs;
for whene’er it comes our way
we’re übercharged with angst.

The ‘bitch’ then wept a bitter tear,
and spoke a fiendish speech.
I know not whether to print it here
or keep it far from reach.

The danger of his words is such
that young ones should not hear;
such agèd wisdom in their minds
would turn their bliss to fear.

The “Bitch’s” Sonnet: “Of the Deceitful Brevity of Life”
(his translation of something by a certain Góngora) Continue reading