After being gently knocked over by “Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking”, I ordered “ambience is a novel with a logo.”. I recommend you scroll through my little video reading to get acquainted with Tan Lin.
Lin remixes networked and print reading/writing practices into something dense, beautiful, puzzling and ultimately relaxing. The book is about its own construction, and the nature of a hybrid identity as “book”, as immigrant, as a networked digital being . Search results, personal lists, metadata, receipts and low-rez images are indexical to the authoring process rather than illustrations of some simulated world. A narrative essay (sebaldian), with multiple entrances and exits and no specific information to absorb, designed to contain flows of semiotic debris that wash up everyday. Lin calls his poetry/fiction/essays “ambient.” And his books do, like much ambient music, set you on a leisurely stroll through semiotic space.
“I believe a novel should not preserve things, it should blank them out very very slowly around all those beautiful, corrosive things that are not happening in the world and that usually involve figures of state and violent incursions in countries far from our own and the loss of our loved ones.”
The novelistic arts – novels, movies, some documentaries – attempt to represent the complex flows of events, people and things inside dense cohesive structures. The novelist or screenwriter builds a structure so that its world can sit solidly in the reader’s mind. This is essential for immersion. And immersion is necessary to conjure the stresses of life and then to offer a catharsis – an end to the stress – and the ability to go on about ones’ business. Catharsis has always been a hot commodity.
But living with continuous networked flows of text and image, there is never catharsis – no end- to the piling on of information. Why pick up that novel or that netflix DVD and go through the motions of pretending to care about a watered-down and well-intentioned (accessible) version of reality when we’ve just spent the day sorting through various scales of virtual and local “crises” and flights from crises: news headlines, electric bill, tweets, emails, calls, anecdotes, comments, deadlines, lists, searches. How do you represent that reality?
Sometimes a fiction universe is so good (thick) that it does seem worthy of the semiotic complexity we experience everyday. But catharsis? I have been watching The Wire and find that it and much of the good long-form television beats the novel in doing what a novel should do – giving access to the complex flows of contemporary experience. In The Wire, although plot heavy, the cathartic moments are never fully satisfying, the characters are always frustrated with each other and themselves. The problems never go away completely. I often “watch” the episodes while performing tasks on the computer, or doing light reading. Divided attention. I listen to characters and turn to the interesting parts. Scroll back to cover what I missed. There are, of course, peaks of dramatic action that take over my attention, but mostly the flow of story is background ambience. In a way, I am not looking for a subject, but for a reflective surface that can bring my own mind into play. ADD? Maybe, but also an indication of how our brains are remixing new realities.
John Ashbery: I would not put a statement in a poem. I feel that poetry must reflect on already existing statements.
Kenneth Koch: Why?
John Ashbery: Poetry does not have subject matter, because it is the subject.
- Selected Prose by John Ashbery
Tan Lin proposes that the craft of writing “be replaced with handicrafts and utensils of writing. Thus recipes, tickets, text messages, itineraries, legal briefs and disclaimers would consitute various surface entrances.” A collaged “novel” cannot provide great catharsis . But it can, if shaped properly, make us see our life’s material ephemera (shopping lists and earthquake data) as worthy of reflection, speculation and discussion. Not the events themselves, but the intermingling of the various reports and records of those events.