Fan Fiction is Criticism

Thanks to `Shaun Duke <>`_ for inspiring this little rant.

I must confess that I'm mostly uninvolved in the world of fan fiction these days, though I have traveled in "fanish" circles at various points in my past. It's not because I don't think fans have interesting things to say about literature and media, or that I don't think what's happening in fandom important and fascinating. No, I'm mostly withdrawn because I have too much on my plate and participating in fandom doesn't really contribute to the specific goals I have at this moment. But I sometimes feel that way about social science.

In any case, I'd like to put forth the following arguments for viewing fan fiction as a form a literary criticism rather than a literary attempt in it's own right:

  • Fan fiction is a form of literary criticism. Sure it's casual, sure it's written in the forum of a story, but the fan fictioner and the critic both write from the same core interest in interpreting texts and using varying readings of texts to create larger understandings of our world.
  • The fact that fan fiction looks like a story, is mostly distracting to what's happening in these texts. Fan fiction, has always been written in communities. The people who read fan fiction are largely the people who write fan fiction. Fan fiction inspires
  • The quality of fan fiction is also largely irrelevant to the point of whether fan fiction is worthwhile. More so than other forms of writing, fan fiction is less about the technical merits of the text, and more about the discursive process under which the texts are created. Better quality writing makes better fan fiction, certainly but I don't think fan fiction centers on those kinds of values.
  • Copyright, and the "intellectual property" status of fan fiction is also sort of moot. It's true that if we're being honest fan fiction impinges upon the copyright of the original author. At the same time, fan fiction doesn't really hurt creators: people aren't confused that fan fiction is "real fiction," fan fiction by and large doesn't divert sales from "real fiction," and so forth. Sure, it's a bit weird for some others to find other people playing in their sand boxes, but the truth is that authors have never had a great deal of control over what happens to their work post-publication, so it's fair.

Additionally, I think that fan fiction accomplishes something that are incredibly powerful and worthwhile that "normal" fiction cannot accomplish. Writing fan fiction can be, I'd wager, an incredibly effective educational experience for new writers, particularly genre fiction writers. By providing a very fast feedback loop with an audience of readers and writers (and lovers of literature and story telling.) Not to mention the fact that because fan fiction tends to be somewhat ephemeral and there's a wealth of inspiration and impetus for fiction, fan writers can write a lot, and if they choose in a very productive sort of way.

And that is almost certainly a good thing.

Deleuze and the Utility of Materialism

(ETA: On second thought, perhaps this essay should have been called "Materialism and the Utility of Deleuze," but both work.)

Here's the second part in my (re)contemplation of Deleuzian theory. Here's part one.

Everything is a machine. Celestial machines, the stars or rainbows in the sky, alpine machines--all of them connected to those of [the] body. [...] There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing-machines, desiring-machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all species of life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever. (p. 2)

-- Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatteri Anti-Oedipus Originally published in 1972, English translation 1977. Translated by Helen R. Lane, Robert Hurley, and Mark Seem.

I think one of the key reasons that I keep returning to Anti-Oedipus is that it provides a way to be a fierce materialist while addressing the kinds of questions that idealists (i.e. psychoanalysts) raise. This in itself isn't particularly unique (I suppose,) but I'm particularly taken with the way that they approach questions of subjectivity, identity, experience, and development without engaging or furthering the discourse of psychoanalytic thought.

Initially I think I was off put by all the psychoanalytic language in the text, and the way that they seem to argue incredibly fine points against Lacan and Freud. As I look at it more and more, I realize the point of Anti-Opedipus is to say "don't think about these issues in Freudian terms, and with Freudian assumptions! Think about subjectivity and identity as phenomena with material foundations and mechanistic underpinnings!"

I, perhaps unlike the milieu that Deleuze and Guatteri were writing in, was never particularly enchanted by psychoanalysis, but I have been incredibly interested in the kinds of issues that analytic thought engages, and Anti-Oedipus provides a way to entertain those kinds of discussions without engaging in a troublesome intellectual lineage.

But to tie this post back to the last one, this approach to thinking about ourselves as subjects, to our creativity and desire, to the cultural implications of our identity, is not something that's particularly useful addition to a theoretical framework. Right? I've not done a lot of this kind writing recently, but it strikes me that the call to be a materialist, and to think about the mechanics of social and personal phenomena is, as we say, "non-trivial." Being Anti-Oedipal isn't just something that you sprinkle here and there; it's not a grand-theory-of-everything, but once it seeps in a bit, it makes it possible to think about the world and experiences in--what I'd call--a more productive way. Perhaps it's true that Anti-Oedipus is a book of ethics after all.

I underlined the paragraph from the last post nearly four years ago. I think I've finally gotten it. I think, more than anything, that is a marker of my own development.

Onward and Upward!

Perhaps Someday We'll Call This Deleuzian

I would say that Anti-Oedipus (may its authors forgive me) is a book of ethics, the first book of ethics to be written in France in quite a long time (perhaps that explains why its success was not limited to a particular "readership:" being anti-oedipal has become a life style, a way of thinking and living.) How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant? How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out this fascism that is ingrained in our behavior? The Christan Moralists sought out the traces of the Flesh lodged deep within the soul. Deleuze and Guatteri, for their part, pursue the slightest traces of fascism in the body.

-- Michel Foucault, writing in the preface to Anti-Oedipus, by Giles Deleuze and Felix Guatteri.

I've spent a while away from Academia and geeky theoretical academic thoughts for a while. Then I discovered this twitter account and I got drawn back into it. I read the tweets and I thought, "you know," these are hilarious on their own because they are so off the well, but I think I actually understand what's going on. I'd have conversations with unsuspecting coworkers about little bits of Deleuzian theory. H.S. came for a visit and we had a rather long conversation about Deleuze and theory. I don't know that "I'm back," is exactly the right way to phrase this, but I definitely enjoy the added perspective that I'm able to bring to this stuff now.

I was never a very good theorist or philosopher, though I enjoy watching from a far, I tend want answers to different kinds of questions. I'm not, nor have I ever been "a scholar" of the "Capitalism and Schizophrenia" diptych--I haven't even read it in its entirety--but it's been a great influence me. Of the things that I read and interacted with in college, I'd have to say that Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus are the texts that I return to with the greatest frequency. And I never even took a class that assigned D&G!

I've read a fair number of papers and other pieces that have attempted to use Deleuze's work as theoretical framework or some such, and I've always been disappointed by what happens as a result. For starters, the chance of Deleuze citations being: of the Rhizomatics essay at the beginning of "A Thousand Plateaus," or from his collections of film criticism are overwhelming. This is unsurprising as this probably represents the most accessible of portions of Deleuze's work. Also unsurprising is my sense that no matter what the paper is about, the Deleuzian theory overpowers whatever the author is trying to say. Deleuze's thought is pretty darn heavy, and there's no way around it.

And from some perspectives this is actually pretty funny: when you read Anti-Oedipus it's not "fluffy," but it's pretty playful. There are lots of metaphors and images that draw out the logic and the point. There's a lot going on, but it's not dense (certainly not in the way that Derrida is dense.) This has lead me to ask a two important questions:

  • If the writing is not very difficult or opaque, why do (Americans) who attempt to use the work fail to capture the playfulness, and seem too fall flat?
  • Why am I (and clearly others as well) so intrigued by this work, and why do I (we?) keep returning to this text? Particularly since it's so difficult to use in support of other arguments.

The answers, I think bring us back to Foucault's assertion in the preface, that Anti-Oedipus is (counter to first impressions) a book of ethics rather than a book of cultural and social theory or even a commentary on Marxist and Freudian theory. When reading the texts, Anti-Oedipus (and A Thousand Plateaus) don't feel like ethical manifestos, but I think that this explains why it's so difficult to use and remains so intriguing.

That's enough for now, but I hope you'll pardon my impulse to blog about Deleuze for a little longer, as I think there's another post or two here.

how helvetica changed my life

I watched the Helvetica movie a few weeks back and I wanted to say, friends, it changed my world.

For those of you haven't heard about Helvetica, which I suspect covers most of you (however, I suspect more of you have heard/seen this movie than the general public, because I think you all are just that cook. at any rate,) it's a documentary that covers design, typography, modernism, post-modernism, and contemporary trends in art/design, all vis a vis the now-52-year-old typeface "Helvetica" which had a profound impact on the last half-century of visual culture.

For real. 90 minutes of a movie about a font face.

And you think this might be boring or get old after a while, but somehow it doesn't. And not only does it not get old, it soaks into your perceptions for a long time afterwords.

The thing about helvetica, perhaps its largest strength, is that it blends into the background, that it's value-neutral, and that it is all over the freakin' place. Seriously. The side effect of this is that we don't end up "seeing" it very much, and the movie shines a light on Helvetica and suddenly I've found it possible to see it everywhere. Everywhere.

And if nothing else, I think its sort of cool to be able to see differences and depths in this thing that sort of exists to be neutral. So that's cool.

And. That's about it.

Stop looking at me like that.

Contact, Cyberculture, and Samuel Delany

I talk to people from time to time about working in cyberspace and successful new media participation. If I were a hipster, I might even say, "I do SEO," but I'm not, and I don't, really. The truth is that I don't have a good, simple, answer to the question, "How do I succeed on-line with social media." I do have a lot of ideas on the subject, as you might expect (many of which I've already written about here before.) The core of my approach revolves around a conviction that word of mouth--like offline--is the most effective way to promote events and products in cyber-space, with the corollary that "meatspace" connections are among the most powerful and valuable "cyberspace" resources.

During college I spent a long time reading and rereading an essay by Samuel R. Delany, called Times Square Red, Times Square Blue about the process of gentrification in Times Square and it's affect on cross-class/cross-race social/sexual contact. The argument was that environments and geographies that promoted situations were individuals would come into contact (randomly, casually) promoted opportunity, satisfying social interaction, and interesting conversations in a way that "networking" opportunities (conferences, workshops, cocktail parties, etc.) couldn't. In illustration of this, Delany describes situations from talking about philosophy in the pornographic theatres of the old Time Square to finding a vacuum cleaner repair service in the checkout line of the grocery store. Furthermore, "contact" between people of different classes (as was present in the pornographic theaters of the old time square,) promotes the destabilization of class-based injustices. [1]

Contact has been an incredibly powerful and useful concept for me in a number of different contexts, because it provides an method for affecting social change in "every day life" and in creates a notion of "politics" that's closer to "people interacting" and further from something tied to institutions of power ("government," etc.,) which suits my disposition. I think, largely the internet is most powerful when it promotes something closer to "contact" and further from something that resembles "networking." And by powerful, I mean a number of things: most likely to positively affect people's work, provide meaningful opportunities for commerce and social relationships, to develop unique cultural environments.

While there are opportunities for contact on contemporary social networking websites, they mostly specialize at helping you find people who are actually quite like you, like people you know in real life, people who are interested in the same things you're interested in, and people who are friends with people you know in real life. That's not contact, in the sense provided by Delany. [2]

There is still, I think, contact. I think microblogging (twitter/ particularly with "track" features, [3] represents (or did) a move away from "networking" to contact. The communities that form around open source projects, promote contact, as they are often interest specific, and contain members with disparate skills and backgrounds. Once upon a time, general population/topic (ie. non-project specific) IRC channels (chat rooms) were an immense source of contact for their users. [4]

I'm not sure what this means. I remain convinced that contact is a useful and important way of looking at social interactions. I also think it says a lot about my interests in open source. I also think that as technologies and memes in cyberspace (eg. blogs, social networking, microblogging) develop in ways that promote "contact," and eventually become "networking" opportunities not that the latter is bad, but it is an important conceptual shift. It's also quite likely that we'd be able to see what ideas are going to be the next big thing based on the degree to which they promote contact. There are other implications I'm sure, but I'll leave those for another time.

[1]I suppose this isn't a wholly radical concept, but in any case, I think the "we need to talk to each other," and live in integrated/diverse situations is definitely a step in the right direction. Delany's articulation is quite useful and complete.
[2]Indeed I've strayed from Delany in a couple of key directions. First his essay(s) described contact as being a uniquely urban phenomena (which I've totally abandoned), and secondly something that resonates with sub-cultural groups (queers, poor, etc.) In the case of the Internet, I think this works but I recognize that it's a stretch.
[3]Once upon a time, you could receive (via IM) twitter updates for any keyword, even if you didn't follow the people who sent the tweets. This means that all of a microblogging can have a conversation with each other, and circumvent the isolating aspects of "social networking" constructs.
[4]By general population/topic I mean non-technical (largely) channels, such as rooms for fandom (fans of science fiction; and pop culture) rather than "working" or customer support channels. Though people would be drawn for a host of reasons, discussions seemed fairly random, and my sense is that (if my experience can be generalized from) that some pretty powerful friendships/connections were developed in these contexts.

Comitting From the Bottom Up

My blog reading eyes/ears tend to perk up when I see someone writing about git as this piece of software fascinates me in a potentially unhealthy sort of way. I read a post the other day that talked a bunch about git, and centralized SCM tools like SVN and CVS, as well as the other distributed SCM bazaar. If that last sentence was greek to you, don't worry, I'm heading into a pretty general discussion. Here's the background:

Version control or source control management systems (VCS/SCM), are tools that programmers use to store the code of a program or project as they develop it. These tools store versions of a code base which has a lot of benefits: programmers can work concurrently on a project and distribute their changes regularly to avoid duplicating efforts or working on divergent editions code. SCMs also save your history incase you change something that you didn't intended to you can go back to known working states, or "revive" older features that you'd deleted. SCMs are It's a good thing, and I'd wager that most programmers use some sort of system to track this task. [1]

The basic unit of any version control system is the "commit," which represents a collection or set of changes that a given developer chooses to "check in" to the system. There are two basic models of VCS/SCM: the centralized client/server system and the distributed system. Centralization means that the history is stored on a server or centralized machine, and a group of developers all send and pull changes from that central "repository." Distributed systems give every developer in a project a copy of the full history, and give them the capability of sending or pulling changes from any other developer in a system.

There's a lot of topics about the various merits of both distributed and centralized version control systems, and a lot of this discussion ends up being hashed over technological features like speed and the various ease of various operations or over process features that relate to what a system allows or promotes in terms of workflow. While these discussions are interesting they're too close to the actual programs to see something that I think is pretty interesting.

In centralized systems, "the commit" is something that serves the project's management. If done right (so the theory goes), in a centralized system, only a select few have access to submit changes, as the central server's only way of reconciling diverging versions of a code-base is to accept the first submitted change (poor solution) and the more developers you have the greater the chance of having version collisions. As a result there's a lot less committing that happens. In big projects, you still have to mail patches around because only a few people can commit changes and in smaller teams, people are more likely to "put off committing" because frequent commits of incremental changes are more likely to confuse teammates, and committing amounts to publication.

In distributed systems, since the total "repository" is stored locally, committing changes to your repository and publishing changes with collaborators are separate options. As a result, there's less incentive for developers to avoid creating commits for incremental changes. Rather than have commits mark complete working states with a lot of changes in every individual commit, commits mark points of experimentation in the distributed system.

This difference, is really critical. Commits in a centralized system serve the person who "owns" the repository, whereas in the distributed system they serve the developer. There are other aspects of these programs which affect the way developers relate to their code, but I think on some fundamental level this is really important.

Also, I don't want to make the argument that "bottom up distribution = good and top down centralization = bad," as I think it's more complicated than that. It's also possible to use distributed technology in centralized workflows, and if you use centralized systems with the right team, the top-down limitation isn't particularly noticeable. But as a starting point, it's an interesting analysis.

[1]So common are they, that I was surprised to learn that the Linux Kernel (is a massive project) spent many many years without any formal system to manage these functions. They used "tar balls and patches, for years" which is amazing.