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.
That’s the title of the paper I’m giving at SLSA ’13—and the paper is done, a full two months before the conference. That’s miraculous, for me. Usually I’m about 75% finished when I head to the airport, and still tweaking almost until the last minute. Not the best way to do it, I know.
As you might have guessed from the title, the paper is about where Robinson Crusoe shits. This is more important than you think it is: Crusoe is not just some castaway, he’s the “King and Lord” of his island, and he spends the entirety of his twenty-eight shipwrecked years turning his desert ( = uncultivated) island into a colony. He even leaves behind colonists! Two sets of them, who don’t get along, as recounted in the sequel!
Colonizing the island means imposing order on it: he fences in parcels of land, he grows grain, he husbands goats, he tends the wild grapevines, he builds houses (three of them, plus a converted cave). And he tells the reader about all this stuff, and everything else besides——except about where he shits. And why is that? Because he never shits, that’s why. And why doesn’t he shit? Because he’s the King, that’s why, and the King can’t shit. Shitting is for savages, not kings!
So that’s the teaser, and if it sounds intriguing, you can read the whole thing. Keep in mind that it was written to be read aloud: there are lots of dashes, and several premeditated digressions in square brackets (time and audience interest permitting). Feedback is most welcome, especially pointed questions (so that I’ll have answers for them prepared).
And the next time you shit into a flushing toilet, say a word of thanks.
There are a lot of things about Robinson Crusoe that bother me—which is why I keep coming back to it, like a dog to its vomit—and one of those things is Crusoe’s lackadaisical attitude toward making a survey of his island. And he does consider it his island, declaring himself “King and Lord” after a mere ten months—incidentally, on his first survey of the island, which doesn’t get him very far. It’s another year before he walks to the other side of the island, and it’s not until his sixth year that he attempts to sail around the island—and even then, he only makes it about halfway. By the time he leaves the island—twenty-eight years after being shipwrecked!—he still hasn’t seen it all. And it’s not that big an island.
[Digression: there’s no way of telling how big the island actually is, at least to the best of my memory. When he walks across it, he goes about two miles a day, but not in anything like a straight line, and he doesn’t indicate how long it takes him to get to the other side, or the shape of the island, or how he’s bisected it, &c. Even if we call it 20 square miles (roughly the size of Manhattan), that’s half the size of the town I live in, and it wouldn’t take me 28 years to cover it all on foot.]
More to the point: Crusoe is worried, from day one, that he’s going to be attacked and eaten by either wild beasts or cannibals. So sure, it makes sense that his first priority is establishing a fortification of some sort—and raiding the ship he was on (which conveniently survives intact) for anything and everything he can carry. Fine. But, that done, it seems like it would be prudent to do a moderately thorough survey of the island to ascertain if beasts and/or cannibals are actually, you know, an imminent threat.
Because cannibals do visit the island periodically, to kill, cook, and eat their captives, and Crusoe does eventually find their feasting grounds—a “Shore spread with Skulls, Hands, Feet, and other Bones of humane Bodies”—but he doesn’t make this discovery until he’s been on the island for twenty years.
What the fuck.
Maybe it doesn’t bother you; it’s always bothered me. The shore where the cannibals land is on the west side of the island, an “End of the Island, where indeed,” Crusoe says, “I had never been before.” A whole side of the island, and he’s never been there! Crusoe is both king and colonist, and both of those roles would seem to demand a more-than-cursory—not to say intimate—knowledge of the land one’s claimed. And, in fairness, Crusoe’s knowledge of (parts of) the island is indeed intimate—the growing seasons, the goats, the (useful) flora—but the wide blank swaths on his (metaphorical/mental) map of the island are a glaring omission.
I am writing about this because of Minecraft.
Minecraft first appeared on my radar late in 2011 (via a Geekdad post on LEGO Minecraft—now a real thing), but I didn’t start playing it until about
six nine or ten weeks ago, when my daughter convinced me to buy the Pocket Edition for the family iPad. It wasn’t long before I was hooked.
Minecraft, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a sandbox game: there are no objectives, no goals, no levels—just a chunk of world, rocks and trees and dirt and water, &c, which one ‘mines’ and then ‘crafts’ into tools and building materials. There are animals—chickens, sheep, cows, pigs—and, if one wants antagonists, zombies of various sorts and giant spiders, which come out at night. It’s awesome.
In the full version (which I haven’t played), the world is infinite; but in the Pocket Edition, there are limits: it’s 256 x 256 blocks (according to the Minecraft wiki—I haven’t actually counted, and I would’ve guessed a bit higher than that—and there is also a limit to its depth). The player-avatar is two blocks tall, and since I’m roughly six feet tall, let’s say that each block is a 3′ cube. A Minecraft PE world, then, is 768 feet x 768 feet (not much more than an 1/8th of a mile)—which makes the surface area 589,824 square feet (the average Super-Walmart is about 197,000 square feet)——589,824 square feet, which is roughly 13.5 acres. (If the worlds are 512 blocks to a side, the surface area would be 54 acres—still far short of the 640 that are in a square mile.)
Thirteen and a half acres. Three Walmarts. And, of the half-dozen or so worlds I’ve generated and spent at least a few game-days (well, game-weeks) in, I have done a full and careful survey of none of them. Like Crusoe, I know some parts quite well, but I’ve also ignored whole sections—probably the very shores where the cannibals are landing.
So, like Crusoe, I’ve prioritized a full and careful—even a full and half-assed—survey of my island below a continual improvement of the habitation I pitched in the first semi-decent spot I came upon and a concomitant accumulation of material goods. (I also have a tendency to get bored with one world and start a new one before I ever get around to doing such a survey.) I would justify myself with “because that’s how the game is played,” but that isn’t a thing—it’s just how I play the game. Sure, the monsters start coming out once it’s night, which is about ten minutes after one starts playing—but there are responses to that occurrence beyond deciding on one’s place of permanent habitation in that first ten minutes.
So I understand Crusoe’s initial course of action, at least to the extent that I recognize that I have the same reaction in a similar (artificial, non-life-threatening) situation. I’m still baffled by his failure to ever get around to surveying his island, but I’m also less confident than I used to be that I, in Crusoe’s place—because that’s a thing I think about sometimes—wouldn’t do exactly the same thing.
Well, so what? Why is surveying one’s island kingdom so damn important?
There is the non-trivial matter of material resources: almost every time Crusoe sets out exploring, he finds something cool—a fertile vale, an abundance of turtles to eat, a cave that becomes a storeroom/fortress of last resort, even a stocked-but-abandoned Spanish vessel aground on a sandbar. (I finally did a full survey of my current Minecraft world in the middle of writing this, and found a shit-ton of clay, which I can use to make bricks, which are fucking classy.) Careful exploration, then, leads to (or can lead to) an improvement in quality of life—something Crusoe is quite invested in, trying as he is to replicate an English way of life on an island off the coast of Brazil.
Beyond that, though, Crusoe’s failure to survey his island strikes me as a failure of curiosity, a lack of desire to discover things merely for the sake of knowing them. I really shouldn’t expect Crusoe to display intellectual curiosity, of course, even if I let his lack of it annoy me anyway. What’s more troubling is that Robinson Crusoe is, in a variety of ways, the urtext of contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives—and when was the last time you saw someone reading Moby Dick while on the run from zombies, or trying to survive an outbreak of crazy swine flu, or trudging across a postnuclear hellscape? Exactly.
I’m not exactly sure what my end-game is—I thought I wanted to make some sort of point about survivalism in popular culture (also seasteading) and a related lack of intellectual curiosity, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe the point is this: preppers don’t stockpile books; zombie fortresses don’t include libraries. And while the percentage of Americans actively prepping for the collapse of society and/or constructing hypothetical zombie fortresses (there’s probably some significant overlap) might be small, shows like Doomsday Preppers and The Walking Dead draw substantial audiences (but at least the new Red Dawn tanked at the box office). That is: thinking about the collapse of civilization is something that lots of us do at least some of the time, and, in every survival narrative I can think of, life becomes—is reduced to—a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, and any semblance of civilization that persists does so only because a strong-willed leader forces it to. So this is what we expect, or what we’re being prepared to accept: when the shit hits the fan, might will make right—and maybe it already does.
In which I continue this post.
“You are what you eat”—a common enough phrase, and one to which every nine-year-old ever has snarkily responded, “Oh yeah? So I’m a(n) [whatever junk food is to hand]?”
A digression: Michael Pollan (apparently) amended it: “You are what you eat eats.” And as my father says: “It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms.”
A further digression: I can’t find any information on the origin of this phrase—none of the dictionaries of phrases/idioms/clichés in the campus library had an entry for it. The internet at large wants to attribute it to Brillat-Savarin, who, in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, wrote (in French): “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That’s not the same thing at all, though it’s possible this aphorism is behind the cliché under consideration. This website cites one Dr. Victor Lindlahr as the person responsible for the stubbornly literal version of the phrase.¹
“You are what you eat.” Except, of course, we’re not: we are human, and humans are the one thing we don’t eat.
This is going to be a post full of digressions: other humans aren’t the only thing we don’t eat, of course. Even if we limit ourselves to “living organisms,” there are plenty of things we don’t eat—depending on who that “we” includes, of course. There are plenty of things white middle-class Americans don’t eat that are edible elsewhere—bugs, various organs, rodents, probably some plants too but those aren’t as gross, you get the idea.
And, of course, cannibalism happens: as a cultural practice, in extreme situations, and as—for want of a better word—an aberration.
What I’m after is this: if I ate a bowl of live cockroaches, most people who are culturally similar to me would find it—the act of eating the roaches—disgusting, and—depending on why I ate the roaches—some portion of that disgustingness would attach itself to me. The dude who eats roaches is a gross dude. However: a person who eats roaches is still human. A person who eats other humans ceases, I’m arguing, to be human.
I don’t know why that’s the case. I feel pretty certain that it is the case: see, for example, the word “subhuman” in the first sentence of the above-linked HuffPo article. Also: google “recent cannibal attacks” and scroll through a half-dozen pages of results: along with words like “horrific” and “terrifying” and “flesh eater,” you will probably notice how often the word “zombie” occurs (you may also notice that the CDC weighed in on the question).
Zombies are, of course, not human.² And the contemporary conflation of cannibals and zombies strongly suggests that cannibals—at least, those cannibals of the “aberrant” type—have, in the act of eating human flesh—lost or given up their humanity. Whether that loss is temporary or permanent, I don’t know. I do know that at least one (fictional) cannibal—Crusoe’s man Friday—was rehabilitated and “humanized” (and it’s probably significant that, in the second novel of the trilogy, Friday was killed during a sea battle with a host of cannibals).
But if zombies and cannibals are not human, they’re also not not human—which is a subject for another post.
1 This website seems legit enough, though I remain somewhat skeptical—I’d really like to see the 1923 ad, for instance. I’m also a bit disappointed by the scant attention paid to this phrase: it was in none of the dead-tree phrase dictionaries in the campus library (and I looked in at least a dozen).
2 That “of course” should bother you—because I haven’t actually demonstrated yet that zombies aren’t human. And I might not—maybe I’ll just assert it, and hope it sticks.
Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.
I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.
I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.
Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.
I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:
Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:
Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.
I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.
There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.
Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.