Tag - literature

Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]
Gérard Genette on What Art Is

Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore [#tbt]

Throwback Thursday blog post: I wrote this two years ago for a now defunct personal blog. I thought about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore frequently while reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which was VCU’s summer reading selection for 2014. I thought my colleagues in Focused Inquiry and their students would be interested in this novel of ideas that also considers the consequences of rapidly changing technologies.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
It had been too long since I read a book for fun. Remembering NPR’s quirky interview with Robin Sloan, I picked up his novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I excused myself for taking the time to read Sloan’s book because I thought that maybe it would prove useful as a teaching tool in courses on new media or the digital humanities. (While reading I was reminded of the time I taught Matt Beaumont’s e: A Novel, which I just learned has a sequel.)

To an extent, Mr. Penumbra is a novel of ideas, but the kind that I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen next. I was reminded of the humorous books of that type by Aldous Huxley (especially Chrome Yellow, which I’ve also taught). Huxley also excels at exploring the intersection of the aesthetic with the ethical.

The New York Times‘s review of Sloan’s novel is right to point out that the plot moves along swiftly thanks to some implausibly simple resolutions to problems that stand in the characters’ way. I think that’s beside the point, though. I believe Sloan offers up convenient and fast solutions made possible by new technology in order to show the limitations of such breakthroughs, more obvious in retrospect. Unfortunately, the novel itself doesn’t encourage readers to circle back to some of these moments and examine them more closely. Or maybe it’s a good thing that Sloan hesitates to offer direct cultural commentary, which risks making his fiction seem didactic. The book is all the more readable for it, and fun.

But class discussion could dwell on the ethical questions that are left unanswered. I identified two issues that could be readily explored via Mr. Penumbra. (I’ll try to avoid dropping any spoilers!)

1. The Work of Data Processing: There are three moments when the main character Clay and his friends engage in swift data crunching. In the first, Clay’s love interest Kat uses Hadoop, a distributed computing system where users volunteer their spare processing power. The second requires actual manpower: the Mechanical Turk, which “instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians” (120). Clay describes Hadoop and the Mechanical Turk as armies on the march, a loaded metaphor certainly. Any allusion to outsourcing and its ills are glossed over, however. The last data crunch is performed at Google, whose corporate structure allows for these ventures, hyped as experts at work.

It is clear that collaboration is required to pull off these feats, despite the fantastic technology, and these plights may be easily contrasted with the individual quests that punctuate the novel. Compared to the analog methodologies that require careful investment of energy, one character (the corporate villain) believes that by simply processing data researchers “don’t take the work seriously” (152). Penumbra himself is at first ambivalent about computer models, telling Clay when he cracks a code, “You cheated—would that be fair to say? And as a result, you have no idea what you have accomplished. … And yet … you did it all the same” (97). And moreover, maybe that’s the point: with new technologies, we may not know what we are able to produce until we actually set them in motion.

2. Intellectual Property: In order to scan a book vital to Clay’s project, his team must create a convincing fake volume to put on the shelf in its place. It requires that he pirate a font, since he refuses to pay the exorbitant licensing fee: “TLC Type Foundry is probably somehow a subsidiary of Time Warner. Gerritszoon is an old font, its eponymous creator long dead. What does he care how his typeface is used, and by whom?” (79). In Sloan’s fictional world, the font is similar to a default typeface on a number of devices, including the iPhone. Clay’s irritation may be partly due to the fact that he can’t rely on the almost good enough version to replicate the book cover; he knows better. (Any typeface will do for data crunching.)

Later Clay finds out that he does have a connection to TLC Type Foundry. In fact, his “salary is paid by font licensing fees and copyright infringement cases” (142). This arrangement is all the more strange considering that the company uses the moveable type for printing while licensing a digital copy, and worries that it will break all its exemplars because the original punches were stolen. How does TLC own a font, exactly? Is it really eponymous?

There are plenty of other topics that the novel brings to light. Most, like these examples, run through the entire book, so a discussion can compare situations at various points.

Sometimes even very straightforward narratives can contain a remarkably dense set of thematic connections, and I would regard Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as one of them.

Gérard Genette on What Art Is

I’m halfway through Gérard Genette’s The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence (1994; Cornell University Press translation, 1997). This book sat in a box for several years, in part because I was put off by its mystical title. I could also tell in skimming the contents that Genette had to contend with Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968, 1976) for a good many pages, and I didn’t want to read bickering over finer points of distinction. It was only a matter of time before my respect for Genette would cause me to set aside these minor reservations. Thankfully, neither criticism has seriously impacted my engagement with this book so far. I should qualify my admiration for Genette, though, for he is a structuralist through and through. I enjoy his careful systematization, while at the same time I can’t help but notice the points where he’s stopping short for the sake of preserving its coherence. It would be criminal to call his scholarship “groundwork” because it is so valuable in itself. One doesn’t build a structure on top of it so much as look around a corner that Genette left less brightly lit. He’s the tour guide that knows his material, and I linger behind to consider a particular detail for myself while he moves the group toward the next stop.

The Work of Art reminded me that Genette’s interests uncannily intersect with mine: narrative theory (Narrative Discourse, Narrative Discourse Revisited), parody (Palimpsests), and the trappings of the printed page (Paratexts). So his turn to textual ontology—what is a work of literature?—comes as no surprise. Actually, he’s well disposed to bring philosophical approaches to ontology into conversation with literary considerations, informed somewhat by an attention to the concerns of textual scholars that comes out of his investigation of paratexts. I love the convergence of all three streams, which I attempted to unite in my article “The Design of Fiction and the Fiction of Design.” Textual ontology is also important to my ongoing work on the short story cycle when dealing with multiple versions of a story in various publication contexts. (What is the ideal work if a story appears in different forms directed at more than one audience?) It even cropped up last semester when teaching a course on conceptual writing, too. Appropriation art and procedural work challenge the traditional ontologies of the work of art. (If I transcribe a radio broadcast and publish it as literature, what is the status of the text I created and had reproduced?)

With that last example in mind, the section of The Work of Art that was most compelling so far explored autographic art that results in multiple products (cast sculpture, printmaking, and tapestry-making). A mold, for instance, is a singular artistic production that allows one to create identical cast sculptures. This is not the same as a text existing in many copies, since the authorial production of a literary work would not have the same material self-sufficiency as the mold. The work of literature is instead ideal (allographic), made of language rather than material, and not coeval with its material forms (i.e., the printed page). But in the case of appropriation literature, cast sculpture might be a fitting metaphor. Take the texts of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters where radio and television broadcasts are written out and presented as literature. Goldsmith is not copying an ideal text but the actual language recorded. Sure, the transcriptions rely on what he hears, but he is trying to hear (and render) what was said, not what was meant. The radio broadcast of the Challenger explosion, in this way, is like what shapes the mold for a cast sculpture (the resulting text representing an ideal work). There would be some that might debate the ideality of that production: those for whom Seven American Deaths and Disasters is not literature but in fact non-fiction. How is a text literature just because someone says so?, they might protest. But maybe the cast sculpture comparison allows us to reply, how can it be otherwise? The cast sculpture requires the mold to exist, and the existence of the cast supersedes the mold.

Genette, in setting the boundaries of his study, claims that “a work of art is an intentional aesthetic object” or, put another way, “an artifact (or human product) with an aesthetic function.” Goldsmith’s appropriation literature clearly meets the first condition but perhaps not the second (just what is an aesthetic function?), calling into question the equivalence of the two definitions. I understand that Genette introduces the idea of function to distinguish aesthetic objects from natural ones or from tools. He must be aware that aesthetics and functionality have commonly been opposed to one another. But the value of this odd conjunction is to separate physicality from functionality. Duchamp’s readymades don’t change physically when displayed in a gallery; the object changes its function, though, Genette notes. I find that a clear and important distinction while still being skeptical about his deployment of function (the word and concept) here. His later point that the existence of the work of art is “extrafunctional” (what it is is more than what it does) makes sense and is strange, because isn’t the aesthetic function is precisely to transcend (functionality and physicality)? I hope that my confusion will dissipate with the arguments to come in the book, and if not, I can revisit these statements to decide whether to speak of function in this way is more trouble than it’s worth.

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