or: The Thing Inside
Caution: may meander into the squeamish zone in both words and pictures... be warned.
I don't exactly know why I am fascinated by cojoined twins. Sometimes I guiltily cruise YouTube, watching videos about successful and unsuccessful separations. Very often the way the twins are joined is terribly difficult: at the top of the head, sharing organs, or with one twin unable to function because of their relationship to the other child. One of the most famous examples of a successful pair is Abigail and Brittany Hensel, a pair of "highly symmetric dicephalic parapagus" (ie, joined at the bottom, with two heads). It is difficult to tell but it looks as though they only have two arms, as well. They are both conscious, functioning girls with very separate personalities and interests, and are growing up apparently without problems, a very unusual case.
In fact, when you look at how their body is arranged, it's nearly miraculous: they have two heads and two stomachs but their small intesting has a "Y" intersection which, with a few minor problems, works fairly well. They have separate spines but one ribcage, two hearts and four lungs, but a shared diaphram. They can only feel their own half of the body, but they can do things such as type, ride a bike, and drive a car without mishap or misunderstanding. It's rather amazing.
More often, cojoined twins do not do well. Their mortality rate is about 75%. There are just too many complications, and all the things which seem to have gone right for the Hensel girls could just as easily fail through lack of alignment or poor formation of organs, which leads to their failure. Twins that are cojoined at the head often cannot function together, but separation can lead to the death of one or both of them, as the brains are involved.
What causes twins to be cojoined? There seem to be two separate theories on that. The older theory, the one I'm more familiar with and which leads to cases like the Hensel girls, is that during development the fetus separates as it does in the case of identical twins, who are two children made by one fertilized egg splitting completely in half. Except that in the case of cojoined twins, the split is incomplete. So you get children who share pelvises, skulls, etc.
Another theory is that in some cases, "a fertilized egg completely separates, but stem cells (which search for similar cells) find like-stem cells on the other twin and fuse the twins together." [wiki] Which implies that in the kinds of cases for whom this theory would apply, the joint is less extreme: some fleshy part of the (mostly separate) twins is joined. In the case of Chang and Eng Bunker, a pair of Thai cojoined twins who traveled with P.T. Barnum's circus for many years and from whom the term "siamese twins" comes, they were joined by "a band of flesh, cartilage, and their fused livers at the torso." This type of cojoining is very easy nowadays to separate.
Then there is the scenario where one twin is described as "parasitic," because it does not have a heart and/or a head of its own, and therefore lives off the circulatory system and resources of its twin. Parasitic twins can be attached in many different places, and are often much smaller than their fully-formed twin. A well-known example of this was the recent case of Lakshmi Tatma, found in a remote area of India at age two, who was joined to her twin pelvis-to-pelvis (with the twin between her legs). Thirty-six doctors took turns separating her spine and moving her bladder, then moving her pelvis together so her legs could point downward instead of off to the side. She had one non-functioning kidney, so the doctors replaced it with one of her twin's; she was then put in a cast designed to keep her legs together. A year later, it seems she was doing fine, beginning to learn to walk, and so on.
Parasitic twins generally do not improve the life of the main twin, not just because it is uncomfortable or embarrassing, but because it is a drain on their health and resources. One form of parasitic twin, called fetus in fetu is another, more rare and often devastating case of poor twinning, where the fetus of one twin, it seems, actually forms around the other, in effect born with another body inside it. One man, in India, lived for thirty-six years with his twin inside him, growing as he grew. I can only imagine how much weight it was to carry around, and how much he must have eaten to keep them both healthy.
Another boy in India went to the doctor because of his abdominal swelling, which was seen to move. A nearly-fully-formed twin was found inside him, with hair, toes, arms, legs, and even a vague face. This kind of completeness is rare in parasitic twins, especially among fetus in fetu, which tend not to be "alive" in the sense we think of, but rather a sort of growth in human form.
There seems to be a grey area between a fetus in fetu and what is called a teratoma: a kind of encapsulated tumor which contains "tissue or organ components resembling normal derivatives of all three germ layers. There are rare occasions when not all three germ layers are identifiable. The tissues of a teratoma, although normal in themselves, may be quite different from surrounding tissues, and may be highly disparate; teratomas have been reported to contain hair, teeth, bone and very rarely more complex organs such as(...) hands, feet, or other limbs." [wiki] ...or tissues from various organs. Teratomas are more common, and more benign, in women and girls, because they often form on the ovaries, where undifferentiated cells can be found; in men, they are more often malignant, for no reason that I've been able to find. Teratomas are considered to be congenital, in other words, they are present at birth, but not found until later on.
You can get teratomas in your brain or other organs, on the outside of your body (such as on the skull sutures or on the back of the pelvis), around your tongue and in your throat. I find them incredibly creepy, because they can contain pieces and parts of a person, encapsulated in a little pod in the body, as if someone had been trying to form, and failed miserably.
Curiously, I don't always find the parasitic twin phenomenon creepy; as the wonderful Human Marvels website describes, in the case of Ernie Defort, who was born with his "brother" Lem attached to his sternum, some people, if left to themselves, will become quite emotionally attached (hur, hur) to their extra parts.
It strikes me that this is not so different from the imperfections we all experience: if left to ourselves, we can become used to them and even like them, as being an integral part of ourselves. It is only when we listen to the media, or other external voices, that we begin to doubt who we should be.
Some interesting books on freaks/human marvels (which is what many cojoined twins and people with parasitic twins did to make a living in the old days):
Monsters: Human Freaks in America's Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas Eisenmann, a book of really quite wonderful photos taken in the late 1800s by Mr. Eisenmann in his studio in New York.
American Sideshow, a lovingly-detailed and warmly described history of sideshow performers in America from the 1830s to the present. With recommendations on Amazon by some of the participants.
Colorado Doctor Finds Foot in Baby's Brain [link]
More info on parasitic twins, thanks to The Human Marvels
Friday, January 30, 2009
or: The Thing Inside
It seems like everybody is getting awarded for their efforts this week. A friend of mine just got her novel accepted for publication, Neil Gaiman gets the Newberry for his fine and wonderful The Graveyard Book, and I... well, I just won second place in last quarter's Writers of the Future contest.
I heard about the contest from Ken Scholes, whom my Viable Paradise friends and I met outside the elevator at 1 am at Worldcon last year while he was still staggering around on a high from the 5-book deal he'd just clinched. We abducted him, fed him mead, and pumped him for information on Success And How To Pursue It, and this is what he recommended (he was incredibly sweet throughout).
It's funded by the late L. Ron Hubbard's estate - first and foremost, apparently, he was a science fiction writer who was well-known and in all the genre magazines, and he wanted to establish something that would help other writers with their careers. Writers of the Future is, by all accounts, entirely separate from the Scientologists; it's considered very legitimate and well-respected in the genre, with lots of famous authors participating. The judges are people we have all heard of: take a look. And the winners include people like Jay Lake, Mr. Clockpunk himself.
This means I get a nice cash prize, and that my story, a magical Western entitled The Candy Store, will be in an anthology (Writers of the Future 25) with the other winners of the contest. It will be illustrated by one of the Illustrators of the Future (part of the same contest), a thing I find odd - I never thought any of my writing would be illustrated! It also means I get flown to Southern California to meet the other winners and spend a week with (as yet unknown) well-known writers, doing an intensive writing workshop designed to give up-and-coming writers tools to help them get published. Then, at the end of the week, they have a big fat black-tie awards ceremony and book signing, and it seems that some publishers/editors/agents come to this.
Okay, I'm starting to get excited.
You can read about the week at Stephen Kotowych's excellent blow-by-blow blog entries here. From what I hear, it's a really good way to jump-start a writing career, and it's easy to apply, so check it out if you write Science Fiction or Fantasy, or if you're an illustrator interested in SF/F. Good luck!
Friday, January 23, 2009
My friend Gwyan just sent me a link to Offworld's guide to the 2009 Independent Games Festival. I'm not a big gaming person (at least, not digitally). But I do find it interesting when someone really breaks out of the gaming mold. Gwyan teaches game design, among other things, so I hear a lot about what students (and more professional gamers) come up with, and there's little real imagination (as far as breaking out of the preset paradigms) out there. Therefore, when someone really thinks outside the (X)box, gets truly imaginative and artistic, and gets away from the sort of 3-D genre stuff I've come to expect from the gaming world, I find myself actually paying attention.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with digital games as they stand - lots of people like them. They just don't appeal to me. And, of course, I'd like to see more games that are designed for people like me, who aren't interested in the same old climb-and-jump-and-kick activities, regardless of complexity and beauty of interface, or who don't like to be stuck behind a gun. Puzzles are interesting, and some kinds of moving-character-doing-something, but once I've played something like that for a few hours, I feel pretty much like I've done that, regardless of how it's dressed up. So that's just my $.02.
However, the nice thing about the IGF can be summed up by their byline: "Rewarding Innovation in Independent Games." So not only are you getting away from big industry, but you are getting the most unusual games real people are designing. I think that's very cool.
A few of my favorites are here:
Machinarium, which while employing some of the usual climb-and-jump motions, seems to manage to include a certain amount of puzzle elements as well as interesting little pop-up interactions - and, well, they are totally fascinating to look at, taking place in a sort of grubby futuristic junkyard place. I haven't played the game, but the design looks really wonderful, kind of Wall-E meets steampunk meets illustrations from the book Arrival.
Night is a little hard to tell about, since there's no platform for it yet, but it looks beautiful. It's not the usual Mario-type running-person action, as the main character is a ball who needs to move through environments that challenge the physics of rolling. It's all in silhouette, and it's very attractive.
But I think my favorite of all is Blueberry Garden, by Erik Svedang. It appears that one draws one's own environment...? And the characters, the weird things they encounter, and the surrealist surroundings are so simple and yet so mindbendingly odd. It's like a little kid's dream. This is one of the few games that I drool at when I see it. Plus, you get to fly. And the bad guys wear party hats, and kiss each other a lot to make offspring (and thus overpower your ability to get blueberries, apparently). How great is that?
On another, non-IGF note, if you have not played Jason Rohrer's game Passage, you should. It takes 5 minutes, and is interesting in its emotional impact, being surprisingly touching. And its designer is now being consulted in the creation of a new game (codename LMNO) in the pipe as part of Stephen Spielberg's development deal with Electronic Arts, which promises to be "the first major video game whose action will not pivot on jumping puzzles or twitch-reflex fusillades but on a nuanced relationship." [link to Offworld]
Perhaps I, and others like me, can learn to be gamers, after all.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
A friend just sent me this:
"At least one study, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, suggests that women need female role models more than men need male role models. While it's not the only problem facing women in technology, it's a relatively easy one to address.
Suw Charman has put out a call for everyone - women and men - to "come together to highlight the women in technology that we look up to. Let's create new role models and make sure that whenever the question "Who are the leading women in tech?" is asked, that we all have a list of candidates on the tips of our tongues."
She's looking to get 1,000 people to blog about a woman in technology - whether that's IT, publishing, animation, any area of technology! - whom they admire, on March 24th.
Sign up to participate here, or read more about the idea here."
I think this sounds like a very interesting idea. Years ago, when I worked as one of the Webmasters and content writers of a large startup website called Girl Tech (now mostly defunct as far as I can tell), part of my job was hunting down women who made a difference in technology and interviewing them, so that girls ages 8-14 could see how many different kinds of tech jobs were out there. It was great stuff, talking to astronauts and women geologists; completely absorbing. I'd love to revisit it.
Ms. Charman has apparently already reached her goal, but that doesn't mean we can't blog on that topic. I'm going to do it, with or without the pledge. Anyone else?
Friday, January 9, 2009
I was just reading Ursula Le Guin's marvelousThe Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination this morning in an effort at delaying the approaching end-writing of one of my two unfinished novels (there are two finished ones, as well - anyone know a nice agent?). It's quite amazing what tactics one will employ not to do the thing one loves most; however, reading this book is much nicer than my other forms of procrastination (laundry, cleaning the chicken coop, etc). Ms. Le Guin is such a sage, intelligent, clear writer, she makes me happy.
The essay "Reading Young, Reading Old" is all about how we read at different ages, and how our perceptions change of old favorites over the years. It was odd that I opened the book here, because I've been thinking about doing a post on books that have made an indelible impression on my psyche; so now, as another form of procrastination, perhaps I can make a brief list and hope that others can enjoy these, too.
I think the single book I come back to again and again, in terms of consistently extraordinary ideas, was The Wind's Twelve Quarters (and a few stories from The Compass Rose, which I tend to conflate with the former). It is difficult to explain why the ideas in these books come back to me again and again, throughout my life, but I think it has to do with the way they go places - both in terms of interpersonal examination and intellectual exploration - that I wouldn't have ever gone otherwise. But perhaps it has more to do with the impressionable age at which I read them.
Interestingly, one of the things I most admire about Ursula Le Guin is the really rigorous social critique she brings to her books and stories. Not in a preachy way, mind, but in a way that makes you see what's possible; she has in fact said that one of the virtues of science fiction is its ability to make metaphors literal. This is a woman whose father was Alfred L. Kroeber, a man who had a huge impact on the development of social anthropology - and H. J. Muller, who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was her cousin. Her mother was a noted biographer. In other words, she comes from smart people.
The thing about Leguin is that as she has grown older, she looks backward with increasing wisdom at the various stages of life and development. As a result, though her later works don't seem to get the same recognition as the earlier ones, I actually find many of them more wonderful, more gemlike; smaller but truer. There is a period, of which Four Ways to Forgiveness is a standard-bearer and probably my favorite, where her writing managed to achieve an awareness together with a beauty and simplicity which I feel is unparalleled. She has a real knack for showing us the visceral realities of hardship and oppression which is impossibly empathetic. As a writer, I find it nearly miraculous that she can get inside the heads of people who have, for example, been through wars similar to that in Kosovo, and write about it, without getting maudlin or harsh. ,,,And all in a science fiction environment, no less.
The Birthday of the World is an extraordinary short-story collection from this period, and Tales from Earthsea, Unlocking the Air (whose title story manages to be small but stunning) and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, are all worthwhile. Believe me, they will leave you thinking.
An older favorite of mine is Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, which manages to be historically accurate while creating a completely alternate history of Manhattan. The layers of image and storytelling in this book have stayed with me year after year, and I find myself going back to it just to remember things. My favorite notion is that of the Cloud Wall, which hovers over the water and swallows things. One of the characters, in order to go home to see her parents, must skate up the river through the cloud-wall to get there; but that is the mystery and magic of where she was raised - one can't reach it by normal means. Really, an excellent, stick-in-your-brain read, and a celebration of all the really magical bits of old Manhattan, to boot.
John Crowley's Little, Big has shaped a lot of how I think about universes within universes, and the way Faery should interact with our world. It manages to do some of what the things that Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son does, in terms of making magic a deeply folkloric and American thing, but it does it in a broader, more adult, more understated way. It's the story of a family's growth and change, their lives and loves; but - and it's difficult to describe how this works - they are no ordinary family. Their close ties to Faery are never explicitly explained, yet permeate all their interactions with the world, and make their lives, in some real way, much more difficult and complex. The scene where the changeling baby begins to fall apart is one which will haunt me for the rest of my days.
Diana Wynne Jones' The Dalemark Quartet are, I think, the widest of her books. I'm a great fan of Ms. Jones, but most of her books are very domestic, taking place in and around one building or sometimes one neighborhood; it's a hallmark of hers, to bring the magic into the domestic world. These books are much more sweeping - and yet they manage to be beautiful and odd at the same time. I really love her ability to make us feel what it's like to be wrapped up in a situation, the way we get to really feel what it's like to be in the thick of magic, either from one's self or from somewhere else. She has a way of making it terribly intimate. These four books take that intimacy into a broader context, and are wonderful for that. Of course, it could be that they were the first of her books I ever read...
Then there are some books I think people should read just because there is nothing else like them. Really. And, of course, because they're great. Here's a list:
Edward Gorey's Amphigorey is... well, if you haven't read any Gorey, and you like this blog, you really need to get this book. It's what being weird is all about - in a good way. And if you have any pretensions of wanting to be a writer, you must read "The Unstrung Harp," a story in Amphigorey which describes the writing process of novelist Clavius Frederick Earbrass: "He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel."
Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife is a relatively recent book, and absolutely beautiful in its conception and execution. I've known grown men to cry at the end of this book. Perhaps that's not a recommendation, but imagine how harrowing your life would be if you had a disorder that meant you were unexpectedly yanked from the present time into some other time during your lifespan, regardless of your present situation? The dangers, and an elegant time-crossed love story, are nicely thought out here.
The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is described thus: "...a thoughtful and powerful examination of cultures and the people who shape them. How might human history be different if 14th-century Europe was utterly wiped out by plague, and Islamic and Buddhist societies emerged as the world's dominant religious and political forces? The Years of Rice and Salt considers this question through the stories of individuals who experience and influence various crucial periods in the seven centuries that follow." Warning: this book contains extensive reincarnation - the characters get to live through the whole seven centuries, over and over. Really, a fascinating, well-researched and well-thought out read - and a great story, to boot.
Russell Hoban is a wildly varied and intriguing author. Not only did he do the plain-and-simple Frances books, which many children know and love, but he did the incredibly creative Captain Najork picture books, of which there are sadly only two. In A Near Thing for Captain Najork, for example (the second of the two books), one character invents a "two seater, jam powered frog" which he uses as a conveyance. The frog hops over walls and rivers and people, and is pursued by a vengeful-but-upright Captain Najork:
"'Follow that frog!' he shouted to his hired sportsmen as he leapt into his pedal-powered snake, and away they undulated. Captain Najork had not forgotten the time when Tom had beaten him and his hired sportsmen at womble, muck, and sneedball. 'I'd like to try some new games on him,' said the Captain. 'I'd like to see how good he is at thud, crunch, and Tom-on-the-bottom.'"
Captain Najork remembers how, in How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, Tom's fooling-around ways helped him win at some rather odd games. In the end, as the champion, Tom trades in his iron-hatted Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong for a new aunt, one who likes to sit in trees with a glass of wine: Aunt Bundlejoy Cosysweet.
Riddley Walker, also written by Hoban, is a post-apocalyptic (?) novel about life among the villages in England when it's no longer England, but a rural place with its own rituals and religion. Here is what one reviewer says:
"Here's the first sentence of this extraordinary novel: 'On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn't ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.' This is Riddley-speak and it's a sort of post-apocalyptic patois spoken by Riddley and the various peoples who live in a desolate Kent thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust. The tribes are living at an Iron Age level of technology and what they are allowed to think and do is shaped in part by the legend of St Eustace and controlled by leaders who use itinerant puppeteers to communicate their policies."
The language is difficult at first, but incredibly poetic in the end, ragged and beautiful. And the story is astonishing in its virtuosity.
On a different and more normal note, Harnessing Peacocks is where I first discovered Mary Wesley, who has her finger on the pulse of wartime (and post-wartime) characters in Britain. She also wrote The Chamomile Lawn, which is probably more well-known, but I like the protagonist of Harnessing Peacocks, which takes place in the eighties, perhaps. The premise of the story is very odd, that of a woman who works part-time as a special sort of cook and part-time as a prostitute - but a prostitute unlike any other - to support her son.
In a similar real-world vein, The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks, is quite boggling, as well. Really a weirdie of a book. I liked it more as a young person than I do now, but I feel I really should mention it if I am writing of books that are unlike any other. It's a fast and interesting read.
Well. That was not a brief list. Now, I suppose, I shall have to actually get to work... wait, I'm hungry.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
My daughter just gave me the novel The Arrival for Christmas ( or is it a graphic novel? A novel told in photo-like graphics? Graphic novel cum photo album?). This is the first time she has specifically found something to give me for Christmas - and orchestrated its acquisition - and I have to say she hit the nail on the head.
The book has been around for a couple of years, but I seem to have missed actually reading it until now. I have to say it's one of the best wordless books I have ever (and I mean that) read. The art is beautiful, the story interesting, and the depictions of the horrors which force immigrants to leave their own lands manages to be not only fantastical but also emotionally spot on. True, few people have actually experienced giants coming into their communities and vacuuming them up, but the impression of looming extermination tastes like real-world truths (and is much more interesting to look at).
And Tan manages to capture the feeling of being a new person in a new country, where you can't find anything, can't read, and don't understand any of the systems. There is a peculiar and wonderful combination of familiarity and weirdness here that I haven't seen before. I highly recommend it, if you haven't seen it - it's much more than a kids' picture book.
Monday, January 5, 2009
I got an email from a reader recently asking me if I knew of a story that (s)he'd read in college, and was wondering if I knew it:
"...it's a passage about taxonomy, an inventory of posessions belonging to an emperor or king. The things are themselves fantastical, but are made all the more fantastical by the ways they are grouped. The collection is divided according to rules, but not consistent rules."
I wrote back to say that I didn't immediately know the passage (s)he was talking about, but I'd ask around.
Later that night I suddenly sat up in my chair and thought, "I'll bet that was a story by Borges." It had been years and years since I read anything by him - The Library of Babel being the only one I knew of, back then - but phrases of it still came back to me now and again, out of the blue. There is a rhythm and a meter to the story which cannot be shaken, imagery which boggles and sticks; and even though I found it a very difficult story to read, I'm thinking now that it was worth it. When, fifteen years after reading it, a student of mine did a very beautiful web-design project based on that story, the memorable-ness was enhanced: her choices of excerpt, combined with extraordinary graphics which she created specifically for the project, echoed and amplified Borges' own obscure qualities. It was an extraordinary effort. I wish now I could remember that student's name.
In any case, there was something lying beneath the email's words, some quality of rhythm or description, which stirred up that part of my brain where Borges lurked. So I started Googling "Borges" and "Collection," among other things, and came up with a possibility. I wrote the person back:
There is one story by Borges called The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, which I haven't read, but seems like a fake essay. It mentions a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" that breaks things into these categories: "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies."
What a list! How fabulous! Grateful for the mind-bend, I sent the person a link to the full text.
The list continued to intrigue me, and I began to read about the piece, which does indeed appear to be an essay, written in impeccable academic style. The fact that John Wilkins and his Universal Language are real doesn't clarify exactly what the piece is, either. I was all question marks, trying to understand if it was a real essay, or a faux essay, or what? And then I came across the beginning of a serious academic article by Keith Windschuttle, adapted from his book The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past:
"MICHEL Foucault opens his book The Order of Things with a paragraph that has become one of his most famous. Foucault describes a passage from "a certain Chinese encyclopedia'' that, he claims, breaks up all the ordered surfaces of our thoughts. By "our'' thoughts, he means Western thought in the modern era. The encyclopedia divides animals into the following categories: "a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.'' Foucault writes that, thanks to "the wonderment of this taxonomy,'' we can apprehend not only "the exotic charm of another system of thought'' but also "the limitation of our own.'' What the taxonomy or form of classification reveals, says Foucault, is that "there would appear to be, then, at the other extremity of the earth we inhabit, a culture . . . that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think.'' The stark impossibility of our thinking in this way, Foucault says, demonstrates the existence of an entirely different system of rationality."
Weird. Foucault writing about Borges as if he was dead serious, all the way through? Both Borges and Foucault are marked for their love of words and play, so it seems odd. But it got better. Mr. Windschuttle goes on to say:
"In May 1995 I gave a paper to a seminar in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. Although most of the postmodernists in the department declined to attend, they deputized one of their number, Alastair MacLachlan, to reply and, they hoped, to tear me apart. My respondent opened his remarks by citing Foucault and the Chinese taxonomy. Didn't I realize, he chided, that other cultures have such dramatically different conceptual schemes that traditional assumptions of Western historiography are inadequate for the task of understanding them?
"There is, however, a problem rarely mentioned by those who cite the Chinese taxonomy as evidence for these claims. No Chinese encyclopedia has ever described animals under the classification listed by Foucault. In fact, there is no evidence that any Chinese person has ever thought about animals in this way. The taxonomy is fictitious. It is the invention of the Argentinian short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.
"This revelation would in no way disturb the assumptions of the typical postmodernist thinker, who believes that the distinction between fact and fiction is arbitrary anyway. Foucault himself openly cites Borges as his source. The example is now so frequently cited in academic texts and debates that it is taken as a piece of credible evidence about non-Western cultures. It deserves to be seen, rather, as evidence of the degeneration of standards of argument in the Western academy."
At first glance, I was fascinated by the idea of so many academics being fooled by a supposed misquote. But then I saw: in these three paragraphs there are multiple levels of story going on. First of all, academic infighting: "they hoped to tear me apart." Then the philosophical differences between Modernists and Postmodernists, which is interesting in itself, because really, their conflict is all about ways of thinking about reality. Which is, of course what Borges' works all played with. And this man Windschuttle wrote a book about (I'm guessing here) how Postmodern thinking is destroying academic culture. And on and on, subtexts spinning off in different directions like Borges' library.
You see, this guy is clearly a modernist of the first order. Modernists, to attempt a nutshell description, are all about the importance of authorship and individual owning of ideas and works. With this, of course, come such things as credibility and provenance - in other words, knowing where you got your facts, quotes, information, etc. and making sure to list them carefully so that credit is given where it is due. Copyright is an intensely modernist concept. Postmodernists, on the other hand, are more multivocal in their viewpoint, holding that the ownership of concepts and words is less important than their relevance to culture-making; in art, for example, postmodernists will "appropriate" from anywhere and everywhere, and by redefining the context of the works or snippets, create something new (Andy Warhol's soup cans, above: using "fine art" painting methods to appropriate canned soup). In postmodern ideals, this kind of appropriation is - well, appropriate, fitting, part of the continual process we all go through of assimilating culture and creating new culture based on that assimilation. Don't forget, postmodernists believe in the virtues of play, which means you can fool around with the stuff you find around you.
So in this context, Mr. Windschuttle is complaining about postmodernists' apparently slipshod authoring (using Foucault's fictional example to define a concept under discussion), while the postmodernists themselves are busy discussing, not the provenance of the quote, but how it captures some essence of the way cultures interact (in other words, the postmodernists are acting like postmodernists). If you read Foucault's introduction, you'll find that him referring to Borges' fictional categories this way: "where could they ever meet, except in the immaterial sound of the voice pronouncing their enumeration, or on the page transcribing it? Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space." In other words, what Foucault himself is interested in is the way in which the categories exist in our minds.
Modernist thinking: hard and fast lines
It's interesting, too, how Mr. Windschuttle has so missed the boat on the discussion surrounding Foucault's piece: I seriously doubt that this discussion takes Borges' enumeration as "real," in the sense of scientific proof. From what I have seen, the discussions address the interesting issues of language and the meaningfulness of traditional categorization. Foucault's quote, curiously, is exactly applicable to the situation between Mr. Windschuttle and his postmodern rivals: he is a person from a strong cultural tradition, having trouble understanding the language of another culture's logic - in other words, trying to apprehend "a culture...that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak and think." A dinosaur, some might say; but though I think it is an issue of cultural evolution, it is also a matter of vision, of the flexible apprehension of a thing which is foreign to what we have been taught. The postmodernists, in other words, think sideways to Mr. Windschuttle, and he cannot (or will not) derail his thinking in order to go where they are going.
Postmodernist thinking: playful (image courtesy of Marian Bantjes)
This problem with misapprehension is very familiar, with overtones of those people (you know who you are) who think of the Internet as a bunch of "tubes," for example. It smacks of the tendency of those older people, who use email sparingly, to condemn young peoples' desire to publicly document both the internal and external parts of their lives. No sense of shame or privacy, the older people say, too much dependence on interactive devices and formats, never allowing themselves to be alone or silent. While I agree that there is too much chatter out there, too many dead Facebook pages and dull blogs about inane activities, and in the end, not enough silence, these artifacts are nothing more than virtual paper-piles with old scribblings on them, and can be ignored. But if you take this phenomenon as a whole, you will see there is the beginning of something new, a more fractured, yet curiously wholistic, perception of the universe. A more Postmodern sensibility, if you will. Something multivocal, multivisual, multilinear. A creation of new culture based on assimilation and re-definition. Something much more like Borges' library, which:
"...consists of an endless expanse of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains...four walls of bookshelves....Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books." [wiki]
Or, perhaps, it could be something like the way the brain processes information from the eyes: we glance, and glance, and in fact move our heads around; but the brain is able to take all these fractured, moving, disjointed parts and stitch them into a coherent reality in which we live quite happily, unaware of the complexities of its creation.
The cubists were aware of this, and tried to represent "true" reality in their paintings - the reality of motion and change - by painting in glances, fragments, the bits seen in all those quick takes of the world we look at. They were breaking with the tradition of perspective, which approaches an image as if the viewer is seeing it from one, and only one, point of view. In a way, then, perspective is the less realistic of the two, given that we have binocular vision and never sit still with our head glued to a point in space. And yet, though cubism is more like how we actually use our eyes to look at things, it can present a rather nightmare vision of the world.
The difference, I think, is in the incorporation. The views we get through cubism are solely visions from the eyes, without the magical intervention of the brain; while perspective is better at fooling us, giving us a semblance of the reality our brain creates for us, which is much more comfortable and familiar.
But what if our brains began to stitch things together differently? What if, instead of either discombobulated glances or falsely cohesive systemization, we saw something which no longer hid the multiplicity of our visual intake, yet made sense of it, unfolding our sense of sight into something huge, something we could not have imagined before?
What if all the devices in our lives were to help unfold our brains into something bigger? Louder perhaps, and busier, but potently dynamic? It is no coincidence that Postmodernism and technology's multiverse have developed hand in hand, nor that the same folks who are horrified at the lack of authorial stricture tend to be the same folks who don't understand what's happening with technology. And who, perhaps, might be horrified at Borges' irreverent use of academic style to toy with our understanding of reality.
...And the reader? Well, to my great joy (s)he wrote back to say:
"Yes, yes, yes!!! I half remembered it being Magic Realism and a depiction of something Asian although I misremembered it as a collection--this is definitely it. Thank you so much...How did you find it?"
How? Hmm. Perhaps the Internet is Foucault's 'unthinkable space,' after all.