It’s made my day that the OED’s earliest citation for ‘moon-faced’—meaning a person with a round face, or, figuratively, someone with “a dreamy or distracted expression”—is about horned men, and “comfort[ing] moone-fac’d cuckolds that were sad.”
When I was building #dwitd, I decided to build a companion piece based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—because those are the two texts I’m juxtaposing in my (still unwritten) essay.¹ (There’s a link to this new thing below.)
The core of Sade’s work is a list of 600 “passions”—his term for transgressive sexual activity—four lists of 150 passions each, ranged under the headings “simple,” “complex,” “criminal,” and “murderous.” The first list is presented as a series of stories, but the circumstances of composition² prevented him from embedding the subsequent lists in a narrative—so they’re just lists, which makes them easy to browse (though the content sometimes makes them difficult to browse).
There’s a significant amount of narrative that sets up the relating of the 600 passions—settings set; characters introduced; rules, regulations, timetables, and punishments pronounced—but the bit that is significant to this project is the following explanation of ‘libertine refinement,’ which occurs almost immediately before the commencement of the main action:
“As for the diversity, it is authentic, you may be sure of it; study closely that passion which to your first consideration seems to perfectly resemble another, and you will see that a difference does exist and that, however slight it may be, it possesses precisely that refinement, that touch which distinguishes and characterizes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.”
So, tiny differences are the source of great pleasure—at least for more advanced libertines. This is, in my reading, the guiding principle of The 120 Days, the thing that dictates the logic of the lists. Maybe you already see why it doesn’t work, but for me, it took this entry, number 40 on the list of criminal passions:
“He fucks a goat in the nostrils which meanwhile is licking his balls; and during this exercise, he is alternately flogged and has his asshole licked.”
The first time I read this, I thought—well, which nostril? Does he pick one, or go back and forth? If he alternates, which nostril does he start with? What if the goat chews on his balls instead, or screams? Is the goat male or female? What color is it? What breed is it? And as far as the bit after the semicolon, well…
Let’s do a little math: there are four choices with regard to nostril, two with regard to the sex of the goat, and three actions (that I’ve listed) for the goat: 4 * 3 * 2 = 24 variations on this one entry. If we take into account the breed and coloration of the goat, other things the goat might be doing, and the dozens of possibilities for things happening to the man “during this exercise,” there are tens of thousands of variations.
Tens of thousands of variations on a single “passion,” and each one—according to the logic of the text—”possesses precisely that refinement” that produces pleasure for those advanced in libertinage. But Sade’s text collapses this profusion of passions into a single entry, and moves briskly on.
I built “he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils” (#hbgn) to illustrate the impossibility of Sade’s project—or, if not “impossibility,” at least the irresolvable tension between the text’s guiding principle and its rigid division and enumeration of libertine passions. I wanted to show both the huge amounts of variation possible within a particular format, and how boring those variations actually are—despite the appalling violence and unbelievable amounts of coprophagia, The 120 Days is relentlessly monotonous.
I wasn’t sure how to show that, though, until I found this macro for producing cycling links. The game (after a content warning) is just one screen, initially containing the text “he fucks a goat in the nostrils while it licks his balls while he is flogged” [noun, verb, noun, prepositional phrase, noun, conjunction, noun, verb, possessive pronoun, noun, conjunction, pronoun, verb phrase]. Thirteen moving parts, as it were—some with only a few choices, and some with many—out of which innumerable variations³ on a particular grammatical construction of a particular sex act can be constructed.
It is, I hope, both transgressive and boring, with occasional moments of genuine surprise:
2. Sade wrote the 120 Days while imprisoned in the Bastille, over the course of about five weeks, in a tiny script on a twelve-meter scroll of paper. It was lost when the Bastille was stormed—Sade had been transferred out about ten days beforehand—and though it was later recovered unharmed, Sade never saw it again, and never attempted to reconstruct it.
3. Well, not really “innumerable”: if I’ve done the math right, there are just under 76 billion grammatically-correct combinations. That number grows to 303 (and a half) billion if we ignore pronoun agreement rules, and 26 (and a half) trillion (American trillions) combinations if we ignore grammatical correctness altogether. This last number is what #hbgn is actually capable of producing, which is astounding.
First, a few things about the game itself:
I refer to “dirty words in the Dictionary” (hereafter #dwitd) as a game, although it lacks one of the more important features of games: it can’t be won or lost (maybe this makes it not-a-game; I don’t really care). Play continues as long as the player has patience.
#dwitd is an exploration of the gaps, omissions, lacunae, and loops in the definitions of sex-and-sex-related words in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. It is, literally, the Twine-enabled equivalent of flipping through a dictionary—and, like that activity, it is potentially endless.¹ Beginning with either fornication or debauchery, players “look up” the words used to define other words, building—at least ostensibly—a fuller picture of what it means to “commit lewdness.” Not every word in every definition is an active link to a new entry: only those words that I thought important to the task at hand have their own entry/passage.
#dwitd contains 73 playable passages, 69 of which are entries from the Dictionary; some passages contain multiple, related words. “CORRUPT,” for example, includes the definitions for three senses of that word (active [transitive] verb, neutral [intransitive] verb, adjective) as well as “corruption”—and it lists, but does not define, eight other derivatives of corrupt. Whore, sensual, and lewd are also compound entries. The entries themselves are quoted directly from Johnson’s Dictionary (which is why he gets an author credit). I’ve omitted the etymological notes and the example quotations (with one exception), and sometimes omitted some of a word’s definitions. (I’ve retained the order of the included definitions, but the numbers don’t always match the numbers in the Dictionary.)
There are four words for which I’ve made the subtext explicit (under a horizontal rule, in a different font)—and, with two of these, I’ve made leaps that aren’t strictly permitted by the game’s internal logic: from sex to genitals, and from genitals to castration. With the first, I just wanted to include genitals—but the second leap was suggested by the supporting quotation included with genitals (the only one I included, and I included the fuller quote from which Johnson [or his source] edited the example).
So, why did I make this thing?
I’m working on a conference-paper-draft-of-a-dissertation-chapter about Johnson’s Dictionary and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I’m arguing (at least at this point) that each of those texts works against its own organizing principle. Here’s part of the abstract:
In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson writes that the lexicographer’s task is cultivation: he ‘toils’ to “remove rubbish and clear obstructions,” tending the language in order to preserve and prolong its earlier state of undefiled perfection. The Dictionary is, according to its compiler, an attempt to regulate and control an otherwise dangerously fecund and indiscriminate tongue. But in practice it is something else, containing as it does a number of “obsolete,” “low,” “vulgar,” and “cant” words; the lexicographer allows the language to remain defiled.
Sade’s 120 Days is structured, like the Dictionary, as a list: 600 perverse sexual “passions” are equally distributed under four major headings. But its ‘preface’ describes proliferation instead of pruning: it is the minute differences between two sexual acts that contain “precisely that refinement … which characterizes and distinguishes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.” The text works against its stated principle, however: with only 600 slots to fill, multiple variations on the same act are limited, and the ‘refinement’ necessary to pleasure is foreclosed. Indeed, where the lists are most in line with Sade’s theory of libertinage, they are the most monotonous.
Elsewhere in the abstract I write that I want to “read the Dictionary as erotica,” and that’s what #dwitd is an attempt to do.
It all began with the definition of “fornication”: to “commit lewdness.” Well, what’s lewdness? and what are lustfulness, and libidinousness? The Dictionary circles around “the physical act of love” without ever candidly defining it (even the words penis and vagina are absent). This circling can certainly be read as reticence and propriety on Johnson’s part, but it can also be read as lexicographic foreplay, a definitional tease-and-denial game. That’s the reading #dwitd foregrounds: clicking through the looping and intertwined definitions might be enjoyable (or not), but it offers no sense of closure or completion—there is no clear place to stop.²
I have no idea if the game is “fun” or not; I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time, but I also find myself clicking through it for no real reason. I built it as a way of visually organizing the connections between the words, because trying to sketch it on paper was insufficient. That didn’t quite work: with 73 passages and 228 connections, it’s hard to parse as a diagram:
[Also, Twine doesn’t count multiple links between passages: so debauch, for example, is only connected to corrupt and intemperate once each, despite each word appearing five times in the definitions for debauch and its forms.]
In the course of building #dwitd, though, I realized that a clearly parseable word-web isn’t really what I wanted; the image above is about as clear as I want things, because the game—like the dictionary—is something to get lost in.
1. With one exception: there is one word which doesn’t loop back into the others; finding that word is as close to a win (or loss) as #dwitd gets. There’s also one—I think just one—unescapable loop (unless one deploys one’s browser’s ‘back’ button).
2. Again, with the exception mentioned in the first footnote. This is an exception I may remove in a future revision, though I also like that the only word offering closure is a bit of a disappointment.
About a month ago, this was retweeted into my feed:
"Art is anything that I cannot do myself cheaper."—Peter Watts—
Christian Bok (@christianbok) June 30, 2013
I don’t know who Bök (a poet) or Watts (a novelist) are, and I have no idea what the context of the statement is—but it seemed like a bizarre and ridiculous claim. Operating under the assumption that Watts meant this seriously, I responded:
hcg (@hcgoldsmith) June 30, 2013
It sounds snarky, I know, but I was being serious. I promise.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a response; by the next morning, I’d mostly forgotten the whole thing. Except that, like an annoying pop song, the tweet kept—keeps—popping into my mind at odd moments, demanding a bit of attention, and then receding again. So I’m going to write about it, and hope that gets it out of my head.
Let’s start with the word “cheaper” (and, really, that should be “more cheaply”): any calculation of cost has to include the time spent doing/making whatever the thing in question is. There’s an xkcd about this:
I phrased my question to Bök in terms of plumbing because we’d just started remodeling a bathroom, and had the plumbers coming out to update the shut-off valves and shower plumbing while the bathroom was in a state of
undress demolition. I’m fairly sure I could have done everything the plumbers did, and the materials would have cost less than they charged us (which was a very reasonable amount, by the way). But it took the plumbers about ninety minutes to do the job, and it would have taken me all day. Maybe two days—I’m not very good at sweating copper pipe.
What the plumbers did, then, according to Watts’s definition, was Art, because I could not have done it more cheaply myself.
Conversely, the Artness of Tara Donovan’s cube of toothpicks depends entirely—under Watts’s definition—on the price of toothpicks at any given moment. I recognize that the Artness of the toothpick-cube is debatable, but that debate should be about the concept and the experience of the work, and not a question of commodity prices. (As an aside: I think the cube of toothpicks is definitely Art, and a big part of its Artness, at least for me, is the fact that it disintegrates, slowly and then quite suddenly—or so I’ve been told.)
Reproducing the cube of toothpicks is in some sense trivial—one just has to build a frame of a certain size and fill it with toothpicks. But what about, I don’t know, the Mona Lisa? I’m not sure how long it took Leonardo to paint it, but I could probably knock out a copy in an afternoon. It would look like shit, of course, but it would be cheap (especially if I used crayons). And does it matter that my hypothetical crayola-copy of the Mona Lisa is in every way inferior to Leonardo’s? I just have to do it more cheaply, not better or even as well. But a further consideration is that nobody paid me to make my Art, and (at least as far as I know) Leonardo was paid. An accurate cheapliness comparison would require me to figure out how much he was paid, what his material costs were, how long he worked on it, what his time was worth … too much stuff, too many variables. And I’d have to adjust the whole mess for inflation and determine some sort of exchange rate. This is just stupid, right? This paragraph has been a waste of time—but Watts’s criterion for determining whether or not something is Art compels me to write it.
Dropping the word “cheaper”—so that we have “Art is anything I cannot do myself”—clarifies how unhelpfully subjective this definition of art is: the entire range of human activities, and a fair number of bodily functions, are “Art” for someone. Ultimately, I think Watts’s statement is reducible to “Art is anything”—which is the same as saying “Nothing is Art.” Maybe that was Watts’s point? If so, well, bullshit.
I don’t want to argue that there is some set of objective criteria for determining whether or not something is Art—that would be silly, and a waste of time. But I do think that, to be at all useful, a subjective and heuristic set of criteria for determining Artness should probably exclude more than it includes, and should take much more than mere cost into account.
“I now began to consider, that I might yet get a great many Things out of the Ship, which would be useful to me…”Posted: June 10, 2013
One of the recurrent themes of Robinson Crusoe—one of Crusoe’s oft-repeated complaints—is how many things he lacked, and how much work everything took: because he either totally lacked the necessary tools, or had only crude, self-made approximations, which themselves took much time and labor to make (four days to make a shovel and hod!). About making his (first) fence, Crusoe says that “it is scarce credible what inexpressible labour everything was done with”——and the word “labour” is often so modified: not only “inexpressible,” but also “hard,” “much,” “very great,” “prodigious,” “infinite.”
On the other hand, Crusoe boasts of the things that he accomplishes by his constant labor, despite all the things he lacks—and he goes so far as to boast that he could have brewed beer, despite lacking barrels, kettles, hops, and yeast:
…and yet all these Things [lacking], notwithstanding, I verily believe, had not these Things interven’d, I mean the Frights and Terrors I was in about the Savages, I had undertaken it, and perhaps brought it to pass too; for I seldom gave any Thing over without accomplishing it, when once I had it in my Head to begin it.
The thing is, for all his complaining, Crusoe has a shitload of stuff. The ship he was on when became a castaway was barely two weeks into a trans-Atlantic voyage (from Brazil to Guinea) when it ran aground and all aboard—except Crusoe—perished. The ship itself survived the storms with minimal (well, moderate) damage, and was lodged in the sand about a quarter-mile from the shore, at low tide—that is, within swimming distance. Crusoe spends a full two weeks salvaging material from the ship before it finally sinks in another storm.
And what does he salvage? Everything:
[on the first day:] Bread, Rice, three Dutch Cheeses, five Pieces of dry’d Goat’s Flesh, …and a little Remainder of European Corn …… several Cases of Bottles…, in which were some Cordial Waters, and in all about five or six Gallons of Rack …… the Carpenter’s Chest …… Ammunition and Arms … two very good Fowling-pieces … two Pistols … some Powder-horns, and a small Bag of Shot, and two old rusty Swords; … three barrels of Powder [one of which has taken water, and is left behind]…
[on the second day:] …two or three Bags full of Nails and Spikes, a great Skrew-Jack, a Dozen or two of Hatchets, and above all, that most useful Thing call’d a Grindstone; …two or three Iron Crows, and two Barrels of Musquet Balls, seven Musquets, and another fowling Piece, with some small Quantity of Powder more; a large Bag full of small Shot …… Besides these Things, I took all the Mens Cloaths that I could find, and a spare Fore-top-sail, a Hammock, and some Bedding…
…the third Time I went, I brought away as much of the Rigging as I could, as also all the small Ropes and Rope-twine I could get, … [and] the Barrel of wet Gun-powder: In a Word, I brought away all the Sails first and last, only that I was fain to cut them in Pieces…
…after I had made five or six Voyages such as these, and thought that I had nothing more to expect from the Ship that was worth my meddling with, I say, after all this, I found a great Hogshead of Bread and three large Runlets of Rum or Spirits, and a box of Sugar, and a Barrel of fine Flower…
[these things are enumerated later, but are salvaged on one of those “five or six voyages”:] Pens, Ink, Paper, …three or four Compasses, some Mathematical Instruments, Dials, Perspectives, Charts, and Books of Navigation … also I found three very good Bibles … some Portuguese Books also, and among them two or three Popish Prayer-Books, and several other Books …… a Dog and two Cats…
…I got two Cables and a Hawser on Shore, with all the Iron Work I could get… [this raft capsizes, and it is only with “infinite Labour” that Crusoe fishes the cables and “some of the Iron” out of his little cove]
[on the final trip:] …two or three large Razors, and one Pair of large Sizzers, with some ten or a Dozen of good Knives and Forks …… about Thirty six Pounds value in Money, some European Coin, some Brasil, some Pieces of Eight, some Gold, some Silver.
Then the ship sinks—but, six months later, it’s cast up by an earthquake, and Crusoe spends a month dismantling the fucking thing: “Timber, and Plank, and Iron-Work enough, to have builded a good Boat, if I had known how; and also, I got at several Times and in several Pieces, near 100 Weight of the Sheet-Lead.”
I don’t have a point, at all—it’s just that I finally (finally) got around to typing up that inventory in my notes on the novel, and thought I should share. Being stranded on a fertile, goat-filled, tropical island might not be so bad, if you had all that stuff, right?
I’m a bit late on this—like, two months late—which means you’ve almost certainly seen this video by now:
It’s hard to take seriously, sure—it’s got a weird “expensive production values on a shoestring budget” aesthetic, and the final seconds are ridiculous (but, to be fair, it’s impossible to make “FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY” sexy, no matter how many flames you put behind it). And, of course, it was widely mocked as soon as it hit the internet, mostly for blatantly ripping off The Hunger Games (or the trailers, anyway) while simultaneously completely inverting the franchise’s ideology (or so the criticisms go: I’ve neither seen nor read The Hunger Games series, and have no idea what sort of political statements it makes).
The point I want to make—which seems (at least in my cursory reading about this … video) to have been overlooked—is that dystopian/post-apocalyptic narratives lend themselves much more readily to conservative agendas than to progressive ones.
I’m using the terms “conservative” and “progressive” fairly loosely, and—reductively, I admit—as shorthand for “change is bad” and “change is good,” respectively. But even if these definitions flatof socio-political nuance, I think they’re still sufficiently accurate to be useful. And while I tend toward the progressive end of things—”traditional” sometimes means “racist/sexist/oppressive,” and contemporary American conservative politics is based on inaccurate nostalgic fantasies about the early union—I also recognize that changes to complex systems (such as those that exist in a nation of 330 million people) often/always have unexpected/unpredictable results, which are not always positive.
Having gotten that out of the way: the dystopian/postapocalyptic narrative is, almost by definition, a conservative narrative¹—things are okay, something happens, then things are terrible. Change is bad. Were things better in The Road before the bombs fell? Of course. (Ditto for basically every narrative with nuclear explosions.) Were things better before Ingsoc? Yes. Did things get worse after Skynet became self-aware? Obviously! (Well, except for the robots. Ditto for the machines in The Matrix.) How about Independence Day? Sure, Bill Pullman and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saved humanity from the aliens, but only after the destruction of ‘every major city’ and the loss of countless human lives. (Roland Emmerich also destroys the world in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t make accurate jokes about them.) Are zombies ever good news, or outbreaks of virulent and fatal diseases? No (unless, again, you’re a zombie or a virus).
Back to the video: what is it trying to sell us? Ostensibly, anyway, it’s trying to sell us “fiscal responsibility, Constitutionally-limited government, [and] free markets” (in all-caps, no less). I’m going to ignore those, because they aren’t what we’re supposed to take away—they seem like a complete non sequitur, in fact. The video is trying to sell us revolution—a repeat of the Revolution, which (even though the video shows nothing more violent than people glowering at each other) has violent, bloody connotations. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, after all.
What happens after a revolution? After the execution of Charles I, Cromwell established a military
dictatorship protectorate; the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution under Dessalines—all resulted in dictatorships of varying duration. The American Revolution is different only in that it resulted in an oligarchy (which persists to this day) rather than rule by .
The “people” certainly participate in revolutions, but they don’t organize them: cabals and juntas and provincial gentry organize them for the purpose of acquiring more power. A revolution results—in the short term, at least—in the transfer of power from elite to elite, and not in the dissemination of power from the elite to the people. That is: the people have, on the whole, no more liberty after a revolution than before, though they may have exchanged some liberties for others.
But, ironically, the Tea Party Patriots (like other ‘revolutionaries’ before them) are couching this movement in terms of greater individual liberty. “Limited government” is good, and (at least for libertarians) “limitedness” and “goodness” are inversely proportionate, so that almost no government is best (no government is anarchy, for fuck’s sake, and we can’t have that). Right? And with small government comes greater individual liberty—which reminds me, irresistibly, of the Hobbesian state of nature, in which individual liberty is completely unrestrained (nevermind that life is nasty, brutish, and short, and a war of all against all). So: governmental power should be consolidated (but not diminished), and individual liberty should be expanded, so we can all be assholes to one another. Cool.
I was going to write about The Walking Dead (the comic)—all those patriarchal, dictatorial tribes (Rick’s included) trying to make a “new life” in the brave new world of the undead—but I don’t think I can right now. The more I’ve tried to make sense of that video, the less sense it makes to me—maybe it doesn’t make any sense?—and I think I’ve already made the point I want to make … which is just that the dystopian tone is actually sort of generically appropriate. That’s all.