Saturday, October 26, 2013


Alice Walker

Meridian is part of the class of novels that centers on college, drawing deeply on the author’s experiences as an undergraduate student but extending chronologically past it. Other books in this canon include Ellison’s Invisible Man and Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. There are other kinds of college student novels, of course, ranging from the unreflective celebration, often aimed at a pre-college audience, to the reflective glorification (Stover at Yale), to the scathing critique (I am Charlotte Simmons or The Big U). But in the case of Invisible Man, This Side of Paradise and Meridian, college represents a particularly important formative period in the protagonist’s life, and the college experience partially reflects the author’s own. After all, the recent Texas A&M alumnus doesn’t set his novel at Oberlin College, but at “Texas Ag.” The college novel is often also a first novel, which is one reason the college period is taken as transformative, even when the novel extends years past graduation.

Fitzgerald is the least imaginative of the bunch – I have the impression he took his own college experiences and simply added more money to his childhood. Walker doesn’t do this. While Meridian's historically black women’s “Saxon College” is no doubt drawn from Spelman, where Walker started her undergraduate education, and the main character is the daughter of black Southern farmers, like Walker, the protagonist Meridian is not a version of the author.  Perhaps this is due to this being Walker's second book. In any case, Walker uses settings and times she knows; Meridian's concerns may even be her own, but her story is a different one. If Walker is a voice of womanism, Meridian is its literal embodiment, becoming a saint-like figure.

Spelman, as Saxon, is depicted as a finishing school for women of the black upper class, a place where the Civil Rights movement is ignored because it isn't ladylike. The self-centeredness of the residential college experience that is celebrated in Stover at Yale is critiqued here. The rewards that accrue to the joiner and class leader aren't even mentioned, as Meridian is an outsider, partially by choice. In classic college novels, such as Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College, Dolly's College Experiences, and even the somewhat more redeeming Anne of the Island, having a close-knit group of girlfriends that strives to honor their class and college is portrayed as morally and mentally correct. Outsiders either see the errors of their ways or are lost. In Meridian, it is everyone else who is lost, while Meridian follows a true path, invisible to the rest.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Demon of Writing and the Myth of the Paperless Office

The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork
Ben Kafka

The Myth of the Paperless Office
Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper

Here we have two academic books about paper, one new and one old. The Myth of the Paperless Office deals with paper from the perspective of organizational behavior; The Demon of Writing deals with it in a manner that is historical, psychoanalytic, and political. Paperless addresses the uses of paper in the service of (presumably "good" - although readers may have their own opinions on the World Bank) organizational ends; Demon addresses how paper can both serve and subvert organizational ends, and those ends are, if not quite interrogated, at least critiqued. Both address what Paperless calls the affordances of paper - its ability to be written upon, shared, lost, or soaked in water and disposed of in the Seine.

That Sellen and Harper's book is readable isn't shocking, as both are industrial reseachers accustomed to explaining things to outsiders. More surprising is that Kafka's book is readable as well - Kafka writes with an accessible, even conversational, tone rare among those fluently conversant with Barthes and Zizek (admittedly, chapter four really does require at least a masters degree in a postmodern-influenced social sciences/humanities discipline to get through with one's self-esteem intact). This, surely, is one of the reasons it's become a hit, as much as academic books are ever "a hit." Humor even surfaces occasionally, as in Kafka's characterization of certain highly visible records as the "'charismatic megafauna' of paperwork," or in Sellen and Harper's discussion of their research at the World Bank. The thought of two ethnographers studying 500 economists is nearly irresistible to anyone in the social sciences, although the authors play this one straight.

In some sense, both volumes deal with the interplay of ideas, objects, and people, and the consequences of this interplay. "Not only was power resistible; it was water soluble," Kafka tells us. Sellen and Harper stay away from bigger ideas such as power in favor of ground-level questions such as Does it work? The latter book is outdated in some ways, of course; 11 years is a long time in tech. Today's entrepreneurs are unlikely to tear stories out of newspapers or carry beepers, and the book's prediction that the coming e-readers would be much more used for work than leisure reading has turned out precisely backwards. Yet much else has not changed; recently my students complained about e-textbooks because they don't have some of the affordances of paper, such as tactilely knowing how far you are in a document, or enabling a visual memory of where a particular passage is located. Sellen and Harper excel at documenting these issues and explaining why they aren't going away, even with technology-marinated generations replacing presumably hidebound older generations.

What both books bring home is how the technology of administration - be it oral, paperwork, or on a computers - shapes how work is done, but that shaping has limits. Replacing paper with computers doesn't endow computer screens with flexibility, portability, or high data density, just a few of the things paper excels at. But it would have freed up any number of copyists in the French Revolution to do more substantive work.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bleeding Edge

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is back with what everyone notes is his first New York City novel, despite the fact that he has hidden in plain sight here for years. Given his penchant for technology and paranoia, it's almost inevitable that 9/11 is Bleeding Edge's fulcrum, and given that he rarely writes about cultural moments at their heyday, it's fully inevitable that the aftermath of the dot-com bubble casts a long shadow over the scene - never nostalgically, of course.

It's a New York novel not just in setting but in its wealth of references, many of which stop short of name-dropping. (I imagine ladies who lunch discuss handbags in the same terms.) One gets used to missing some references when reading Pynchon; he writes as if every reader is working with the same map of ideas that he is. It isn't necessary to understand all of them, but the reader needs to understand some significant fraction of them. (At the time, I attributed the fact that I was one of very few students to finish Gravity's Rainbow when it was assigned in college to some superiority on my part; most likely, it was simply that I was a history of science major in addition to English.)

Some of these references are absolutely necessary, and Pynchon tends to write them as such: In Bleeding Edge, familiarity with the events of 9/11 is assumed. Others aren't, and catching them is simply a reward for in-group status. For those who have read both, it's hard not to consider Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice as something of a matched set. Both are "minor" Pynchons, in the sense that they follow one character through one plot line; both are detective novels at heart, drawing on the noir tradition. Vice is set in LA, while Edge is set in New York City. These are cities most English speakers know something about, even if they've never visited, and both books are rife with references only those with quality time under their belts will get.

I've lived in New York for two years now, which in no sense makes me a "New Yorker," but it does provide me with a working knowledge of Manhattan, where most of the book's action takes place. I have seen many of the locales named and can identify many of those that aren't - the Ukrainian dumpling place in the LES is Veselka, for example. Throughout the book, I wondered how much non-New Yorkers would appreciate it. (There are far more Americans who have never been to NYC than the average New Yorker assumes, of course.) But I was able to enjoy Vice despite my scantier knowledge of LA, as someone who has both a New Yorker's and an Oregonian's attitude toward that place, and I ultimately concluded Bleeding Edge likely works in the same way.

What worked less well was the time spent online, in the world of DeepArcher, which is more or less a MMORPG minus the G. The version of future in which we use the internet as an imitation of geography stopped being relevant not long after Snow Crash - it works only in newer novels such as Reamde when it is explicitly a World of Warcraft-like game rather than the internet as a whole. Metaphors of physical travel from site to site went out with Geocities, and avatars reached their height of development with the Wii. It's hard to see DeepArcher as having any real bearing on what the internet actually looked like in 2001 - to say nothing of working well with the bandwidth of the time. It may be narratively easier to write the internet as place, but the result here is that the usually clear-sighted Pynchon seems to have slipped into a Gernsback Continuum moment.

This oddity aside, Bleeding Edge is vintage Pynchon, which means the top of your head is likely to come off at least a few times during reading, and that the NSA is probably having a hell of a time trying to grasp the meaning of his internet search history.