After watching the BBC documentary on John Cooper Clarke (which was decent – weird to see how much Plan B, Kate Nash and especially the Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner really want to be him, but can’t because they’re stuck in this plastic sales-indie limbo, and because they have neither the wit nor flow), I’ve been reading some of William S. Burroughs’ letters this evening. The one that amused me the most was his letter to his parents, where he kindly and casually lets them know his discovery of grammatical entropy:
“PS. If my writing seems at times ungrammatical it is not due to carelessness or accident. The English language—the only really adjustable language—is in state of transition.. Transition and the old grammar forms no longer useful..”
In another letter, he describes the cut-up technique to his son, without labelling it as such. Interestingly, he seems to frame it as a pasttime:
“A game I play is to type out phrases from Rimbaud or any poet I fancy. Then I cut into sections. Rearrange putting section four with section one and section two with section three and select a new arrangement.Try it some time with Rimbaud or any writing.”
I’ve read a lot of Burroughs – alongside James Joyce, he’s probably my favourite author. But, unlike with Joyce, I’ve yet to read much criticism or analysis of his work, as it always seemed fairly straight-forward to me. As such, I don’t know if anyone has ever noticed that his (well, Brion Gysin’s) cut-up technique was the predecessor of the way the 21st century web-assaulted consciousness hungers for small bites of data and finds block text oppressive.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who “reads” the internet in a cut-up manner, flicking between multiple tabs on my browser in a compulsive info-binge.
Burroughs saw cut-up as a way of breaking the back of the oppressive autocracy of narrative but, as an addict, he of course would. Because what I suspect to be the case is that information is addictive and, like a dealer who gets you hooked on smack by giving you less potent doses each time, the more our brains become conditioned to process it, the smaller and more frequent the fixes they allow.
I could be wrong, but this at least seems more interesting than the “internet is killing our attention spans!” argument I keep seeing everywhere. If the internet was killing attention spans, then blogs like this wouldn’t even exist. There’s simply too much information about in cyberspace for a 20th century mind to reasonably cope with, so what we’re seeing is an evolution from attention spans to lattice frameworks that dice up the infostream to make it more manageable, with the internet as the testing ground.
In Watchmen by Alan Moore, (written in 1986, before the internet had become widely available,) Ozymandias identifies a precedent for the cut-up technique in the practice of shamanic divination by random scatterings of goat innards, both of which allow “subliminal hints of the future to leak through.” Ozymandias, described as the Earth’s premier mind, takes this to its logical extreme, setting himself up in front of a large network of televisions intermittently switching channels so that he can absorb the zeitgeist in a fugue state.
Moore, channelling Burroughs, was customarily ahead of the curve. In 2012, we’re all Ozymandias, and we’re all Burroughs, in that we’re constantly putting information into a blender and drinking the smoothie. But the reason we haven’t all become super-polymaths like Ozy is because we’re drinking it out of shot glasses, and shots of a low concentration. We get the hit, but not the content.
Are we getting better, or worse, in this regard? Difficult to say. 1), the future right now is insidiously hard to predict, and yet 2), futurism and futurology are stronger fields than ever.
1) might be explained by Claude Shannon’s equation for the informational content of a message:
H = -Σpi log pi
As I understand it, “H” is information entropy and a symbol carried over from Boltzmann’s H-theorem, Σ means “the sum of”, “pi” means the various probabilities we can predict in advance, and “log” means that the relationship described accumulates logarithmically rather than additively. The minus sign is the biggest piece of the puzzle, and the conclusion is that the information in a message (any message, from this sentence to Moby Dick to a text to your boyfriend) equals the negative of the proabilities you can predict.
So, the easier premonition is, the less information the message contains. And, as mentioned before, there’s a lot of information in the fugue right now, more than at any point in human history and doubling at a more rapid pace than ever.
2) might be explained by the fact that, well, technology is so damn interesting, and in the age when Moore’s (no relation) Law is kicking into overdrive and when CERN are firing shit at relativistic speeds in order to falsify the standard model in Switzerland, it’s no wonder people want to know where we’re going next. But it could always be the case we’re being seduced by the subliminal hints of the future that are sluicing through our transpersonal macrocut-up, sneaking past the entropic units to beckon our minds forward.
In Watchmen, there is one character who can see the future. Dr Manhattan has precognition because he perceives space fourth-dimensionally. This ability is obscured due to a collation of tachyons, theoretical subatomic particles that can move at superluminal velocity.
Why? Because of a contradiction between the existence of tachyons and causality, which in special relativity means the timing (sequence) of two events related by a signal exchange can never be inverted by a coordinate transformation (that is, transformation of the reference frame). In other words, cause is always earlier than the effect in arbitrary frame of reference. A tachyon has an imaginary mass and can carry no information, and a tachyonic signal event connecting two spacetime events inverts causality, scrambling events.
If that sounds too complex, what I’m saying is that, in a universe where faster-than-light particles exist, string theory is fucking with relativity. Wouldn’t it be weird if that reading at CERN last year that clocked neutrinos at superluminal velocity was down to more than faulty wiring? And if cause and effect are exchanged… would that be the future fucking with us?
And because all that’s all too much like boring, unbroken, 20th century paragraphs, here’s a photo I randomly came across yesterday. It was in a series depicting literary greats in their bathing suits, so we 21st century interneters chuckled healthily at everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Virginia Woolf as they were caught with their trousers down. With one final exception.
It looks like he’s laughing at us.
He isn’t, right?