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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Freewheelin' convergences on Hertzberg's blog

A great visual convergence in the vein of Lawrence Weschler's Everything That Rises is noted on Hendrik Hertzberg's blog.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Consider this the hint of the century

Each semester, I ask my students to identify their compulsive sentences, or the sentence structure they use the most often. I teach syntax as a way of mediating thought on the page (or screen). If you have strings of subordinate clauses, what is it you're trying to do--criticize someone else's idea, provide foundation for your modification of a previous idea, or something else? What are some ways to vary your syntax in that situation, and in what ways might this change in method determine a new way of dealing with someone else's idea? Unclear antecedents--such as sentences which begin with "this" standing in for some unnamed noun--tend to indicate that the author is skipping over the step of saying what "this" is, often because they're not sure or want "this" to be something amorphous. Dangling modifiers tend to signal a confusion of cause and effect. Then there's the Bloomberg ban on "but," which I think is appropriate and should be heeded more often in other contexts:
Winkler’s exacting approach was eventually codified in an often mocked companywide stylebook titled The Bloomberg Way. Bloomberg News stories, it declared, “have a structure that is as immutable as the rules that govern sonnets and symphonies.” Every story needed to include “the Five Fs”: first, fastest, factual, final, and future. Leads were to be exactly four paragraphs long, comprising the stating of a theme, a quotation in “plain English from someone who backs up that theme,” numbers-based details that further support it, and an explanation of what’s at stake. The use of “but” was banned—it forced readers “to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence.” Words such as “despite” and “however” were to be avoided for the same reason.

Or the conflict can be provocative of new ideas. I like Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style to illustrate some of these concerns and to give some ideas for syntactical structures which can lead to new thoughts.

By mid-semester, the students are very good at diagnosing the function of syntactical units. A couple of my students identified their compulsive sentences as the dash sentence, where two independent clauses are joined together with a dash. "What does it get for you?" I asked. "What kind of connection are you trying to show when you join those ideas with a dash?"

They noted that it was an easy, unobtrusive way to join two ideas without explaining the connection.

"Yeah, the dash is sort of the high fructose corn syrup of grammar," I said. "The white flour. It adds no nutritional value to the sentence."

I stood behind the weird comparison. The habit of thinking that I see in those types of sentences is that the ideas are being juxtaposed but not put to any more rigorous use, whether it be subordination or comparison or something else. The dash sentence is useful in first drafts when it may be useful to see what it looks like to put two new things next to one another, but at some point you have to test those ideas out in some other way. I use that type of sentence all the time on this blog: I do the same thing with colon sentences because they have a similar juxtaposing function. Maybe they aspire a little more to chiasma, but how often do I really believe in the appropriateness of chiasma in whatever I'm testing out? Or rhetorical questions, for that matter? They're one of my least favorite structures because I don't see the usefulness if they're just going to be answered in the next sentence or paragraph. Or they're going to be used as a "consider this idea--but not so seriously that we move beyond mere interrogation" type of sentence.

Speaking of which...

My mom sent along this link to Jonah Lehrer's Frontal Cortex blog, where he identifies his "weakness": the "consider the x..." sentence. Lehrer links to the Language Lab blog, where Benjamin Zimmer traces the origin of the sentence to biblical passages ("consider the lilies of the field" and others). Lehrer notes that he probably owes the turn of phrase more to David Foster Wallace and MFK Fischer, and commenters on both sites suggest its funnier usages in Monty Python, Ogden Nash, among others.

Lehrer calls "consider the x" sentences "lazy linguistic bridges, cheap transitions from idea to the next." Those are exactly my thoughts on the function of the rhetorical question. They are transitions that work only at the juxtaposition level because the connection between the new thing and the previous item aren't explained. They really are "hint[s] of the century" in Michael Stipe parlance! The various uses from Zimmer and the commenters on both blogs demonstrate that the syntax doesn't always serve that single function, however (a no-no on Bloomberg). The structure doesn't serve the same function for DFW in "Consider the Lobster" because the act of consideration (and reconsideration) is at the heart of the essay: "There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider."

Lehrer probably has plenty of functional uses for "consider the x" because he writes about thinking. So if he's interested in how people make connections between ideas, he has to figure out some syntactical solutions which explain these habits in others--as well as in his own work. How do you explain what people do after juxtaposing ideas but before they formulate them into coherent comparisons or judgments?

Finally, what does the hyperlink add to this discussion of how syntax illustrates and facilitates new thinking patterns? In his book Interface Culture, Steven Johnson calls the hyperlink "the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries." He insists that hyperlinks change the way we read because they suggest new ways of mediating the juxtaposition of ideas:
As the word suggests, a link is a way of drawing connections between things, a way of forging semantic relationship role, binding together disparate ideas in digital prose. This response to hypertext prose has always fixated on the disassociative powers of the link. In the world of hypertext fiction, the emphasis on fragmentation has its merits. But as a general interface convention, the link should usually be understood as a synthetic device, a tool that brings multifarious elements together into some kind of orderly unit.

I think the blog is a totally appropriate place for sentences which aspire only to juxtaposition, so the hyperlink is a good auxiliary for that habit. Lehrer and Zimmer are both writing about cognition and language in a medium that can facilitate some experiments, so maybe they can test out some of the outlier possibilities for mediating connections. The constellation method, where commenters suggest examples of a phenomenon, is one productive form it can take.

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Blogger Yaffle on Sat Jan 31, 12:29:00 AM:
It is positively embarrassing how much I loved this post.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gil Grissom erotica

My friends say I should end my relationship with Gil Grissom: "he's too old for you," "he's emotionally remote," "he's not real." So we're over tonight, now that he's left CSI: and he exists only in Spike TV's syndication. (This feature of my Grissom crush was annoying, as my mom pointed out one night when we had watched several episodes in a row and had seen the question 'will beer make my girlfriend's breasts bigger?' posed several times. "Don't the commercials bother you?" she asked. "If I were Spike TV's target audience," I said, "I'd be troubled that advertisers see such a lucrative link between MANswers and all the dead women on this show...")

Until yesterday, I didn't know that others shared my feelings for him--and published them online in elaborate Gil Grissom fanfic erotica. It's a weird phenomenon, but it fits in with the show so well that I'm surprised there hasn't been a CSI: episode about fanfic. It may be that Griss is a good fanfic subject less because "he could be up for anything," as Stevens puts it, and more because he's a student of conventions of alternative lifestyles--as in the episodes about furries, narcocorridos (a dangerous form of fanfic?), horror porn (ahem, Spike TV), and, this season, sitcoms for aging actresses, when the murderess explains how the murder would have occurred on her own badly written TV show. When a fanfic author delights in anatomizing a CSI: episode and reconfiguring the conventions into a new story, s/he's being Gil Grissom.

In this way, Griss is less compelling as a character and more as a motor for the show. But confusing those two things is the way to move the form of fanfic forward. The erotica setting is a stand-in for the crime procedural in its repetition of conventions for pleasure. It's an odd remediation of the show: the frequently voiced concern about eroticizing dead women (on a TV serial) gets turned into eroticizing a grizzled detective's intellectual interest in genre conventions (online in a forum). Virginia Heffernan explains how forms of media respond to and create different forms of desire:
We have to develop content that metamorphoses in sync with new ways of experiencing it, disseminating it and monetizing it. This argument concedes that it’s not possible to translate or extend traditional analog content like news reports and soap operas into pixels without fundamentally changing them. So we have to invent new forms. All of the fascinating, particular, sometimes beautiful and already quaint ways of organizing words and images that evolved in the previous centuries — music reviews, fashion spreads, page-one news reports, action movies, late-night talk shows — are designed for a world that no longer exists. They fail to address existing desires, while conscientiously responding to desires people no longer have.

In another column, Heffernan points out why "the thrill of cognition" creates new forms of media about procedures:
Still, the cube video is part of a larger genre of popular online video: the “solving spectacle,” which typically shows a soloist in a modestly appointed room trying to work out a problem — an intricate guitar solo, a speed painting — that is largely in his head. The solving spectacle is crucial to the mix on YouTube, where how-to videos, videos of ordinary people and everyday displays of virtuosity are all in demand.

Maybe I'm killing the mood by dissecting it, but that's what CSI: is all about! When I recently re-watched the episode about vampire aspirants who confuse fulfilling rituals to fit in to a subculture and real bloodlust, I thought of this Slate article by my old Spec colleague Chris Beam about why vampire movies are obsessed with smirking at conventions of the genre:
Or consider this exchange from the Twilight books: "How can you come out during the daytime?" asks Bella. "Myth," says Edward, her fanged paramour. "Burned by the sun?" "Myth." "Sleeping in coffins?" "Myth." Being smug jerks? True!

Slate is becoming a great site for genre theory! On CSI:, the vampire subplot is paired with another case involving a traveling Mikado troupe which has staged a burglary of a Japanese art show for an insurance scam. With the vampires/Gilbert and Sullivan stories paired together in a single episode, we can see how lots of types of stories rely on explaining how rituals, performances, and fantasies are put together through repeating and reconfiguring different conventions. Some fanfic subgenres export one type of story into another, creating Star Trek erotica, vampire action movies, and so on. As Beam puts it: "All genres evolve, and in this respect vampire films are nothing special. But vampires seem to relish deviating from their conventions more than most. At the very least, it keeps the genre fresh for Lesbian Kung-Fu Robot Vampire Killers From Space." (I'd say the game isn't fresh for Lesbian Kung-Fu Robot Vampire Killers from Space; it was created for it. It depends on it. And it needs an online companion for commentary.)

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Anonymous Anonymous on Mon Jan 19, 01:42:00 PM:
Hi Alice,

Don't take the following too seriously.

I'm always pleased, of course, to get a mention in your blog. But I felt that my mild remarks about Spike/CSI's commercials were used to set up some sort of unreconstructed feminist straw woman, insufficiently attuned to the interplay of genre and cultural (including advertising and fanfic) context.

You recall that I don't ordinarily watch CSI on my own. I actually prefer to learn about some television programs by watching them in marathons with you and listening to what you have to say.

When we watched the marathons together for CSI and for House in the post-Christmas period, my efforts to understand always came as questions about story structure and genre. Does this sort of thing always happen at this point in the narrative--that was my question, over and over. Does this minor character always serve as a foil for the major character's struggles in this way?

As a mystery reader who always mentally notes the span and complexity of narrative time between the genre-required first murder and the pretty-much-required second murder, I needed to know these things to make sense of what was happening. You did a good job of explaining to me what you called the "grammar" of the show--mostly, its generic characteristics.

But as you answered these questions for each episode, I could see that Grissom held few surprises for you. He was tired, according to the story line. But you seemed a little tired, too.

And that's why I think that Grissom's move to syndication/marathons may be good for your relationship with him.

Fanfic wouldn't work for you, and really doesn't work for anyone, since it just narrows and heightens the obsession, removing any semi-authentic agency the beloved character might ever have had.

But if a show is seen in out-of-temporal-order syndication or marathon, then it is relived more in the way that we relive a memory. When the past is past, we are free to re-edit it a bit, noticing only what we want to notice and not having to be alert for any surprises. We can even skip an episode that we didn't really like. What happened remains separate from us, but also gets merged into our own life story in an a way that works for us.

In syndication/marathon, Grissom will become more available and, I think, less powerful. An edited nostalgia will slowly begin to replace the loss.

So, here's to the new shows. There seems to be a big crop of bright, emotionally available guys this new season.

Not that I'm watching.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You've been sentenced

My friends and I spent New Year's Eve playing Boggle and a game called You've Been Sentenced. You've Been Sentenced is a grammar game: there are pentagonal cards with different parts of speech on them, and players must create sentences using only the words on the cards. Each card has five choices worth varying amounts of points (a, one, the, some, any; five proper nouns; during, on, at, from, before; wish, wishes, wishing, wisher, wished). Players then vote on whether a sentence makes sense grammatically and content-wise. The procedure generates a lot of "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" attempts. You don't have to use all the cards, and it's probably a good idea not to force too many words into unwieldy, Pavement-lyric sentences, but I did not heed this advice and was challenged (quite rightly) on many sentences. Some of the better attempts from our games:

Broken, smelly lover, quietly you grew away from procedures on the show.
That mommy, monetarily rocketing with her pram, needs a sentencing.
In the '50s, troubled Marilyn Monroe planned this slick trip.
Classes do learn because of itchy poisonings.
Which of your maddening copied recipes is peppery?
Squirrelly Pretty Paula sees a needy rocket-man in the dentist's chair.
A kind of cooled gas is faster.
This stupid odd fatso bagged flipping Fred Rogers. ("Hahaha, let's unbutton your cardigan, and you already have your shoes off...")
In the bar, noisy, mean Howard Hughes was fumbling, slowly necking. (Gross.)
What if boring Willy T. is already the next right field doctor?
What if, far from making friends, Saintly Susan freaked out above the pot party? (It was pointed out to me that I should have had Saintly Susan freak out about the pot party, since that was an option on the card.)
Moving secretly, the caregiver balanced on patches. ("Of ice!" Paige pleaded. "The ice was referred to in previous sentences!" No deal. There are lots of unclear antecedent challenges in the game.)
Her blond, black, ladylike, lumpy punter quit yawning American-style. (This sentence also provoked some discussion. Oddly enough, we weren't taking issue with the bizarre string of adjectives describing the punter, but we wanted to know whether "American-style" referred to yawning or quitting.)

Though I didn't write it down, there was considerable bickering over a sentence about a burglar who "sneaked solitaire through the museum" (or something). "Solitaire" didn't fit as an adverb. Nick grabbed his Mac for assistance. "There are plenty of uses of 'walked solitaire' on the Internet!" he said. He would Google it. His voice faltered. "Like on someone's MySpace blog..."

MySpace was not going to sway us in our moment of prescriptivist primness. MySpace is not the site you want to use to make the positive case for descriptivism.

It was around this time that another friend text-messaged from our trivia bar in New York to say Happy New Year and that Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again On My Own" was playing (we had enjoyed some trivia success weeks before by identifying a photo of David Coverdale). Here was convergence. My theme song is all about "going down the only road I've ever known / Like a drifter I was born to walk alone." But "solitaire" and the past tense form of a verb do not have the same grammatical possibilities as those verbs with "alone" and "on my own."

So though Nick kept searching for answer, he would never seem to find what he was looking for online. Or he would probably find it, but it would be a waste of time. Sometimes we play Boggle with the online dictionary to make the case for outliers, as in this Slate article about the how Word spellcheckers and aggregate Web queries reflect and/or determine how language is used and corrected:
What's behind this disparity? Word processors and search engines have different goals. The latter has to field queries as broad and varied as the Internet itself, so it needs a very large vocabulary in order to differentiate spelling mistakes from legitimate search terms. Word processors are much more conservative, limiting their lexicon to words that are definitely legitimate. This way, a program like Word can catch virtually every typo, even if it means misidentifying some proper names and newer words. In other words, search engines put breadth first and spelling accuracy second while word processors are the other way around. If you type in Monkees, Google will assume you're searching for the band; Word will give you a red squiggly line, thinking you've screwed up the word monkeys.

Not surprisingly, search engines and word processors build their dictionaries differently. A search engine's lexicon is typically put together using words gathered from Web pages or old search queries—a huge corpus of real-world data that constitutes a list of valid words and their frequency in the language. Word-processing lexicons are more heavily chaperoned, and the pace at which new terms enter the dictionary is much slower.

Web searches are particularly good for registering how proper nouns are added to a language, which isn't the province of Boggle, but it's still an interesting comparison to the occasionally arbitrary Boggle or Scrabble dictionary. In an article on online Scrabble in the latest New Yorker, Judith Thurman notes that one of the interesting features of online Scrabble at Scrabulous is that you can choose which dictionary to use. Since I am not on Facebook and thus don't play the online versions of these games, I'd like to know how the word generating in the online games is different from the IRL ones. Any ideas? My only data is I've been left in the dust by people who play online; playing frequently lets you develop superior skills that cannot be approximated by sometimes playing Boggle by oneself while one is watching Law & Order.

Aha, and I see an acceptable usage of "solitaire" in Thurman's final paragraph:
...I used to keep in form between matches by playing Scrabble solitaire at the kitchen table. The greatest drawback was that I couldn't bluff myself by laying a "phony" (a plausible but nonexistent word like "pukha" or "burlock"), or by deliberately misspelling a common noun ("fettel") to lure an opponent into making it plural, then challenging it off the board--a legitimate if churlish ploy.

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Blogger Katy on Tue Jan 13, 09:58:00 PM:
Alice, I think I've said this before, but you should join Facebook so we can play Scrabble. You can choose between two official Scrabble dictionaries, so there's really no word generation right in the game.

Sometimes I get frustrated with words that aren't in the Scrabble dictionary on Facebook. I keep wanting "dek" to work, and it doesn't (and K is worth five points!). I think I was able to play "yob" once, but "craic" didn't fly, so I'm not really sure how the Scrabble bigwigs treat non-American English and dialects. Maybe I'll ask my dad to weigh in on that one.