John Sutherland is the Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and Visiting Professor of Literature at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, USA.
A new science fiction novel is threatening to completely overhaul the way literary criticism is conducted, claims John Sutherland
Friday August 31, 2007
I have seen the future of literary criticism - and, as John Reed said - 'it works'. Works better, in fact, than Reed's beloved Soviet Union ever worked.
The readership of The Guardian Education supplement will contain a lot of "left wing" academics who are familiar with the allusion to the US Communist journalist John Reed, who was portrayed by Warren Beatty in the Hollywood film "Reds" (1981)
And it will work, I believe, for other humanities disciplines. Science I'm not so sure about. But perhaps there too.
The purported inventor of the terms 'cyberspace' and 'matrix' is currently in the UK promoting his latest book, Spook Country.
Perhaps he was when this article was written, but William Gibson was home in Vancouver by the time it was published on Friday.
William Gibson's fans are screaming blue murder that the UK reviewing establishment has been slow and disrespectful in its attention to this latest masterpiece.
mea culpa - there has been some whingeing on my part, on the pages of this blog to that effect. How many other UK fans feel the same way is unclear.
Gibson himself is 'cool' (a big-deal word for him) about the reception of Spook Country and has come up with another lexeme for critical neglect: 'antibuzz', or 'definition by absence'.
To remind the reader that John Sutherland is a Professor of English :
A lexeme is an abstract unit of morphological analysis in linguistics, that roughly corresponds to a set of words that are different forms of the same word.
He really should trademark these words. He'd be up there with the five "Boardroom Bonanza" fat cats featured on the front page of Wednesday's Guardian.
Presumably those featured in this articleThe boardroom bonanza by Julia Finch, City editor Wednesday August 29, 2007, The Guardian
There's been no antibuzz, it should be said, in the neighbouring hard pages of this newspaper. Those interested in synopsis and critical verdict on Spook Country can find it in Steven Poole's review on August 18 - ("better late than never", say the fans)
Remember that Spook Country was officially published in the UK on 2nd August, 5 days ahead of the USA.
See my annotations and slight corrections to this positive review by Steven Poole.
and John Crace's Digested Read the previous Tuesday - an act of desecration which has the Gibsonophile community foaming with rage, but no-one can hear you foam in cyberspace.
It is hard to to simultaneously "scream blue murder" and "foam with rage" 8-)
My suggestion that, just as with the plausible technology on display in Spook Country, it may well be possible to write or adapt a computer programme or script to semi-automatically generate a John Crace Digested Read regurgitation, if anyone could be bothered to waste time on such a project, is entirely serious.
What's relevant to the grand proposition with which I began this piece is how Gibson nowadays writes, and how he demands to be read:
"One of the things I discovered while I was writing Pattern Recognition [Gibson's previous novel] is that I now think that any contemporary novel today has a kind of Google novel aura around it, where somebody's going to google everything in the text ... there's this nebulous extended text. Everything is hyperlinked now."
What the author is outlining here is the theory of a new and innovatively creative reading practice. The first line in Spook Country is:
"'Rausch,' said the voice in Hollis Henry's cell. 'Node', it said."
Node is a Wired-like magazine that doesn't and probably never will exist. Rausch is the (non-) editor. Hollis is in Los Angeles, doing a feature on locative art - holograms of the famous dead, which can be attached, like ectoplasm, to places (eg River Phoenix outside the Viper Room).
Hollis is sleeping (as the next sentence informs us) in the Mondrian. It's a hotel on Sunset Boulevard - along from the Standard and the Chateau Marmont: five-star joints which feature centrally in the first chapters. Gibson's current fiction is product- and allusion-heavy. And the plot of Spook Country (which revolves around the concept of GPS triangulation) is fiendishly indirect. Help is appreciated.
Node-man, a Gibson fan, has duly set up a website with the devotional URL node.tumblr.com.
Is this deliberate obfuscation to hide the pseudonym of patternboy or is there slight confusion caused by the fact that the nodemagazine.com postings are by "admin" ? At a push, "Node admin" could perhaps sound like, or be mis-read as or mis-remembered as "Node-man"
Do not underestimate how significant the presence of this extremely rare inline hyperlink to anything other than another article in the same publication is, in a mainstream media article - browse around the rest of the generally very good Guardian website to see what I mean.
Are we finally starting to get through to the Establishment ?
Node-man also got a very early copy of Spook Country. The fan is unidentified: Gibson knows who he is, and says he lives in small-town USA and wants, apparently, to stay anonymous.
The difference between even the publication of Pattern Recognition in 2003 and Spook Country in 2007, is the ready availability of Advance Reader Copies or Uncorrected Proof Copies via online sites such as eBay. Book publishers could, if they chose to, put pressure on eBay not to allow these items to be sold before the official publication date, but they do not seem to do so.
A small amount of internet research would easily reveal all the contact details for patternboy, but "that is left as an exercise for the reader" (or you can email me at blog@SpookCountry.co.uk if you are really curious). Perhaps this aspect of the article is a little test along the lines of the example quoted in John Sutherland's Wikipedia entry, which says
"Carefully going over every word of the text, Sutherland highlights apparent inconsistencies, anachronisms and oversights, and explains references which the modern reader is likely to overlook. In some cases he demonstrates the likelihood that the author simply forgot a minor detail. In others, apparent slips on the part of the author are presented as evidence that something is going on beyond the surface of the book which is not explicitly described (such as his explanation for why Sherlock Holmes should mis-address Miss Stoner as Miss Roylott in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band")."
Node-man mobilised a volunteer army of fellow enthusiasts
I am not sure how big this "army" actually is, but it is certainly international, given that I am in London, UK and patternboy is in Colorado, USA.
and set out to create what Gibson above terms the "Google aura", or what he prefers to call the critical "cloud" that hovers over every work of literature. We can now "map" this in ways we never could before - thanks to Messrs Google and Wikipedia.
What this means, at the basic level, is a new kind of annotation. Read that first sentence again, and hit the following URL (the second chapter of Spook Country shifts to New York: there are three lines of geographically separated, but GPS- and Google Earth-locatable, narrative which finally converge in Vancouver, Gibson's current hometown): node.tumblr.com/page/23.
The website has created a version of the cloud. It can only be a version. As Gibson states in the novel, when we watch TV, flipping our remote, we are not 'viewing', we are 'channelling'. So too, when we read a novel, we create our channel through it. Which is why my Da Vinci Code is different from your Da Vinci Code and each of ours are different from the five million others. Dan Brown's novel should be seen as a gigantic piece of Emmental, with millions of wormholes threading through it.
The Da Vinci Code Wikipedia entry.
If you asked me what are the two best-annotated texts available to scholar and student in canonical English Literature, I would say the Alistair Fowler edition of Paradise Lost and the Ann Thompson edition of Hamlet. Colleagues would probably come up with alternative contenders. But they would be the same kind of footnote / endnote enterprises. Old school.
Paradise Lost (Longman Annotated English Poets) (Paperback)
by Alastair Fowler (Editor)
- Paperback: 744 pages
- Publisher: Longman; 2 edition (9 Oct 1998)
- ISBN-10: 0582215188
- ISBN-13: 978-0582215184
Hamlet (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series) (Hardcover)
- Hardcover: 613 pages
- Publisher: Arden; 3rd edition (March 21, 2006)
- ISBN-10: 1904271324
- ISBN-13: 978-1904271321
What the unknown Node-maestro has done is poles apart, both from this, and from the usual website-based 'everybody pitch in' mess. He's channelled the raw material supplied by his volunteers into a sign-posted route through Spook Country. It opens the way, I believe, to a new kind of critical commentary on texts. One can see, easily enough, how it could be extended to Paradise Lost, or Hamlet.
Some of the mostly but not entirely Google and Wikpedia enhanced annotations, may well be serendipitous and whilst their selection is due to patternboy or myself, a different choice might well have been made, depending on time pressure.
For example, patternboy originally annotated the name Semenov, with an illustration of what turned out to be a Nobel Prize winning chemistry professor, rather than the spookier references to the KGB and DGI which I turned up. The picture of a top Soviet scientist and Academician in the 1950s or 1960s, does not necessarily give an entirely wrong impression of a senior KGB spook of the same period.
The term apophenia was applied quite a lot by WIlliam Gibson and critics and fans about Pattern Recognition and now about Spook Country as well.
It's a two-step thing. Clearly, you need the Googleised data. But then, it needs to be shaped. Not definitively shaped - no reading or interpretation is ever final - but formed into a critical route. One of many possible routes, but one which gets you to the destination.
I have seen the future of English Studies. It's a cloud. Or a big cheese. Take your pick.
As with all academic writings, there will, no doubt be someone who does not agree with this hypothesis by John Sutherland, but it does seem quite plausible to someone like me, who spends so much time blogging with hyperlink references, about non-trivial matters.