Friday, 23 October 2009

Translating to Digital

- people used to make records,
as in a record of the event,
the event of people playing music in a room -
ani difranco

Ok, bit of a whirlwind post, I'm off to a translation conference tomorrow morning, and my train's at half 5, so please forgive me the lack of referencing and hyperlinking in this piece, sources are certainly available on request, and I might even get round to it when I get back.

This is, verbatim, what I will be saying tomorrow afternoon. I'm sorry you don't get a handout, but all the quotations are in the text. I've touched on some of these ideas on this blog before, but there's a lot of new content, and I think it reflects the current state of my research pretty well.

- Translating to Digital:
What Changes When Nothing Changes? -

Whenever I say that I’m researching the potential impact of reading digital texts, I always get asked: “so do you think we’re going to stop reading books? Are books going to die out?” I’d like to begin, then, with a quote from Stuart Moulthrop, who says:

“The book is already ‘dead’ (or superseded) if by ‘alive’ you mean that the institution in question is essential to our continued commerce in ideas.”

I very much like that idea, that books are no longer essential. That means that when we do hold on to them, and for dear life, we’ll be doing it because we care, which has to be much better than assuming that they’ll always be around, and that they’ll always be our most effective tool for receiving information. It is in this vein that I would like to ask today why a printed page is so different from its digital counterpart, why so many are so resistant to such change, and why, if we consider this move from page to screen as an act of translation, we might have to rethink the word ‘text’ and its implications, particularly if we delve into the history of our species.

In a short essay from 1932, entitled “The Homeric Versions,” Jorge Luis Borges said of translation, and this is quotation 1, that:

“The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency. Bertrand Russell defines an external object as a circular system radiating possible impressions; the same may be said of a text, given the incalculable repercussions of words. Translations are partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers…To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H - for there can only be drafts. The concept of the ‘definitive text’ corresponds only to religion or exhaustion”

Over the next twenty minutes I would like to unpick this quote from Borges and take what he says about the act of translation acting as a redrafting and reiterating of always unstable texts, and begin to apply it to the form of translation across media that we are seeing with the increasing digitisation of the book form on computer screens and devices such as the iPhone, the Amazon Kindle, and the SONY Reader.

So what does Borges say first? That translation aims to model a ‘visible text,’ a cohesive object, rather any ‘immeasurable labyrinth of former projects.’

This notion of the original work to be translated being somehow coherent in and of itself, as if no drafting had occurred, and continued to occur, this question plagues translation studies. Exactly what is it that is being translated? The digitisation of written texts, I maintain, is a form of translation because it asks the same question of script, of the written or printed word. What is being translated? As Katherine Hayles states this new formulation of that old question, quotation 2:

“By and large literary critics have been content to see literature as immaterial verbal constructions, relegating to the specialized fields of bibliography, manuscript culture, and book production the rigorous study of the materiality of literary artefacts…It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production. Materiality of the artefact can no longer be positioned as a subspeciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies”

As books are scanned or otherwise reproduced for new digital mediums the question of translation, then, becomes a question of embodiment: what does taking, or seeming to take, a text’s body away actually do? This seems, to me, to be at the root of the most commonly heard protest against reading on a computer screen or a dedicated electronic reading device, the but-I-can’t-read-it-on-the-beach/in-bed/in-the-bath argument.

Maybe it’s because we think of texts as implicitly human bodied, that to rob them of such would feel somehow barbaric. Books have chapters, from the Latin for head, caput, whilst pages have feet for their footnotes. The book’s body has a spine, and their contents can have an appendix. Even references to sections being ‘above’ or ‘below’ rather than ‘shallower’ or ‘deeper’ suggest it should be standing on its feet.

This does not, however, seem enough of a reason for why so many people are aghast at the idea of the translation of works to digital simulations. Perhaps, then, it’s to do with the science of touch, the haptics of reading. The shape of the bound book may have come to pass through mere ergonomic coincidence - thin pages for lightness and compactness, as well as the ability to browse, thick covers for protection, these things make sense -, but the continuation of the form is not an accident. When we learn how to read we are informed by the generations of people who have written, read, and researched before us; we learn to read books as both a medium and a message, whether we are conscious of it or not. And we read them as we think we should, as the pinnacle of humanity’s physical expression of thought. As Florian Brody describes it:

“Our conceptions of text and textuality are so closely linked to the physical object of the book that any paradigmatic change in its form seems to threaten the stability of representations of knowledge.”

That a threat to the body of the book should seem akin to a threat to the acquisition of knowledge is unsurprising for two connected reasons: The first, that we sublimate our tools, is well explained by Walter Ong who documents the notion that

“intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its working become ‘internalised’, that is, part of is own reflexive process.”

Or, if that’s too sedate an appraisal, Marshall McLuhan describes the same effect in quotation 3:

“When the perverse ingenuity of man has outered some part of his being in material technology, his entire sense ratio is altered. He is then compelled to behold this fragment of himself ‘closing itself as in steel’. In beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it.”

Human beings, then, are natural technicians, and in much the same way as our hominid ancestors became ‘at-one’ with the branches which enabled their transit, each swung from liana becoming an extension of a brachiating arm, so we continue to be able to ‘incorporate’, to borrow neurologist Frank Wilson’s apt term, external tools into our being. This is not as alien a concept as we might imagine - a musician being able to express themselves through music which could only be produced by external means is a familiar figure. A book, then, is much the same, a material artefact onto which we project aspects of ourselves, and which we incorporate as part of ourselves.

A bound book has come to represent knowledge and fixed coherence, completed and separated from the world by its covers, a totemic projection of a definitive truth. Espen Aarseth reveals this in a simple thought experiment, quotation 4:

“Imagine a book in which some of the pages appear to be missing, or the print is unreadable every 16 pages, or some of the pages are repeated while an equal number omitted. Even if this copy is the only one we ever see, we automatically assume that it is not supposed to be this way and that a more correct version exists…In short, we prefer the imagined integrity of a metaphysical object to the stable version that we observe”

The bound book has become sublimated as a form, incorporated within us. The codex is now transcendent, a suitable word, perhaps, for the medium’s biblical roots.

The second, and related process goes back further, that our hands and brains are intimately linked. I have far too little time to explore the notion fully here, but consider our early simian ancestors attempting to make the first tools, a hammer say. In order to create a basic hammer a rock must be tied to a sturdy stick, but in order for this to happen a mental image of the future hammer must be in place, i.e. there must be symbolic thought. There is much evidence to suggest that the evolution of tool use coincides with the evolution of mental imaging, of this symbolic thought, and that the use of our hands has long been tied to thought in general. Contemporary research into gestures and pedagogy seems to support the continued impact of such assertions. Scientists in Norway studied a class performing maths problems such as that in quotation 5: 3+2 +8 = BLANK +8. The students must learn to balance the equation by finding the single digit which is equivalent to 3 + 2 in the first half, they must understand the concept of ‘grouping’ - adding adjacent numbers together to produce a balanced sum. In order to teach this act of ‘grouping’ tutors were getting students to draw a little ‘v’ shape with their finger under the 3 and the 2, physically tying them together. Sure enough students understood the concept significantly faster. But the researchers also found, over the course of the study, that it didn’t matter where the students drew the ‘v’, it was the very act of making the gesture which introduced and sublimated the concept.

So what are the implications of these twin assertions, that the mind assimilates external objects it uses frequently, and that hands and brains have always worked in close tandem, what are the implications for our problems of translating to digital, of our worries that we might no longer read our books in the bath?

Perhaps processes which have shaped us for hundreds of thousands of years should not be ignored due to the emergence of new technologies whose R&D time is measured, on average, in months, and only rarely in decades. As such it may seem that we are taking our hands out of reading, removing our ‘tactile observation’, as it were, and introducing a uniquely human kind of blindness. Tales of sudden blindness, of Milton, for instance, or of Nietzsche, of Joyce, or even of Borges himself, for all of their ability to shock us with our own fragilty, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always forced to maintain at least a point in pressure with something, hence our fascination with acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea, though none of these represent a true, total loss of touch or else they would become grotesque. Touch is never in our control, but for the most part it is controlled, we might think of pain as excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch. We see the most important aspects of our world with our hands, our skin. No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they not subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?

We must not ignore these questions of tactility, indeed they are the vital design questions facing this generation of technology, but I also wonder if these arguments aren’t born of privilege, of cultures who have a rich literary heritage, a diversity of cheaply available physical books, and access to this first generation of digital reading devices. When the price point drops to such a degree that the technology is available in the poorest parts of the world, as the One Laptop Per Child Project is already promoting, and these previously silenced heritages are able to be transmitted alongside the work of the rest of the world, the arguments for holding onto paper technology, at least for day to day use, may well seem strange, or, worse, the product of a decadence which has tainted the West over the last several hundred years. That is not to say that paper books will disappear, but the trend towards digitisation is manifestly real, and in many parts of the world, and for the next generations, digitised reading is going to become the norm with bound books found in a niche we are yet to carve.

What might be the effect of reading works translated across mediums in such an environment, where bound books are no longer essential? Let’s return to the Borges’ quotation and what he says of Bertrand Russell, that

“Russell defines an external object as a circular system radiating possible impressions; the same may be said of a text, given the incalculable repercussions of words.”

When we translate from physical to digital we do not preserve the text, we transfer the script, the raw writing. We need to readjust our idea of what ‘text’ means in light of this movement, and Russell’s external objects seem perfect: ‘systems radiating possible impressions’. If the text, to all intents and purposes, has no body - and I’m not so sure that this is wholly true, though I have no time to discuss Kirschenbaum’s forensic studies, Hayles’ ‘material metaphors,’ or even the ridiculousness of suggesting to people who manufacture computer components for a living, that they are making non-physical media - but if we were to assume a lack of corporeality, and see the script as only a part of the textual experience, then we might begin to see text as nothing save the situation which surrounds it. Why isn’t a scan of a book page the same as a printed version? Because the text is the script combined with our time, our place, space, history, artefact sublimation, our phenomenology, the ontology of the apparatus, and so on, and so on. Text emanates outwards to encompass the artefact’s and the reader’s histories which exist in symbiotic feedback loops constantly affecting one another.

At the most basic level we approach a novel in a bound book with a specific history, including our personal history of the book form, and this frames our reception of that novel. We approach that exact same novel on screen with all of that history, plus our history of computing.

It is the baggage of bound book history that we bring which may cause many to view the translation to digital as somehow ‘unnatural’. In much the same way as we might look at a typical countryside image and think that it is ‘natural’, forgetting the centuries of human landscaping that have often gone into its construction, so have many readers consumed printed books and reported that they appear to model their thoughts accurately. My contention is that, perhaps, they should have asked if their thoughts have in fact been modelled to fit the printed page. As Sergio Cicconi puts it, quotation 6:

“[c]hirographic writing, and, later, typographic writing, [has] strongly modelled the organization of our thoughts, so much that now we tend to think of the linear and propositional structures of printed books as the most faithful representations of the way we organize thinking. But in spite of the paradigmatization of the ‘printed-thought’, a printed text is a very vague (and artificial) approximation of the flow of our thoughts”

We think in a ‘print’ way, in a physical-book way, not because that’s our ‘natural’ way to think, but because our society has developed an affinity for codex reading, with structures in place to select for its specific strengths. This has modelled our minds, and also our culture, so that organised, linear thought has long been prided as intellectually superior, as a sign of the brain working at its peak. Research into creativity and play, however, has revealed what has long been appreciated by artists, designers, musicians, and anyone who produces creative work on a regular basis: linear thought is certainly rare, and probably an illusion. There is no doubt that organising one’s thoughts into a cohesive narrative is useful, and often essential, but to suggest that it’s our default, or even most productive state is a folly sustained by the equating of mental efficacy with the inflexible drive forward of the printed word.

This teleology of the printed work is not part of the history of computing we bring with us to the screen. For most of us, digital reading has thus far been performed online in a sea of disparate webpages and hyperlinks. How could we read a novel on such a surface and not be affected? Writing, originating in the mundanities of cattle counting, was never meant to be anything more than functional. Visual art, and varieties of dance, poetry and storytelling, were the abundant forms of expression and preservation of information those few thousand years ago, and to think that they might be usurped by the scratchings of the first Sumerian accountants would have been, initially, untenable. The unpredictable factor, however, was writing media’s ability to affect the ways in which we think. Writing alters the minds with which it interacts because it doesn’t remain apart, it is interiorised; writing spaces are sites where ideas move in both directions: writers are written upon, readers feel themselves read.

Put bluntly, if we suddenly got to watch a film on the pages of a book tomorrow would it really feel like the same film we watched on a television or a cinema screen?

Hyperlinks, which Steven Johnson thinks of as punctuation, “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries,” have been the next step in changing the way in which our minds read, and they have been so successful that they need no longer be a part of the screen in order to affect us; they too have been sublimated. When a word is a hyperlink, that blue text might as well be the blue of a special effects screen on a Hollywood movie set, a site of infinite possibility for inscription. In the webs of text online, hyperlinks chart an authored path, whilst simultaneously reminding us that with Google only ever a few clicks away we could always break out from the text we’re reading to wash ourselves in information whose connections are of a much more arbitrary, or self-authored variety. That promise of hyperlinks now exists in all digital texts, whether they appear on the screen or not, and that weaves a gentle magic, existing as a fundamental, conscious or unconscious breakdown of the privileging of the author, and the immutability of bound paper text. Even if a digital document appears as ‘closed’ as a printed book we must, then, come to it subconsciously in a different frame of mind; our attitude to the text is often subtly changed, sometimes radically altered.

As Borges’ philosophy of translation encourages us to appreciate each translation of a work as a draft, rather than a corruption of some perfect originary text, so digitisation removes the fear that we might destroy a script object by altering it. If we don’t like the results of our play, then we can always return to previous iterations; we have no physical object to affect, only multiple versions, multiple drafts, multiple translations, with varying degrees of authorial involvement, and the threat of an ur-text reduced to a dull murmur.

Every change that I’ve discussed may well seem small. And when we ask what changes when we attempt to change nothing, when, for instance, we look at the pristine scanned pages of Borges’ Labyrinths and compare them to the bound book version, the exact same script in a different medium, then we can, surely, only talk about fractional amounts of effect upon the reader. But I believe that each element, each effect, is cumulative, and by repeatedly performing acts which question our assumptions about how a work should be received, and by deploying, as linguists and theorists, a more media-specific approach to what makes ‘text’ different from ‘script,’ we might see an incredibly productive shift, allowing us to return to classic, corporeal works with fresh eyes, and start to more fully appreciate what is truly vital to sustain in our reading practices as we continue to translate works into their digital counterparts.

Friday, 16 October 2009

An Experiment with Sex and Hit Counts

- the body is our general medium for having a world. sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor skills such as dancing. sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world - maurice merleau-ponty

We’ve got sash windows in our new flat, windows which rattle and clank if someone’s walking about with even the lightest step, and if I sit up from the sofa to get my coffee they give a satisfying clunk. Today I went to grab my cup just as a fly touched down on the window, which shuddered violently, and the fly bounced away, no doubt shocked at the power he wielded.

On a distinctly unrelated note I’ve started teaching again, which might feel powerful if I didn’t care so much about doing a good job. If ever there felt like something to avoid being average at it would be teaching (special mentions to brain surgery and bomb disposal).

To diffuse my fears I’ve been thinking about sex and technology. This isn’t a ruse to improve this blog’s Google rank, though I’ll let you know if I get a sudden hits spike. No, this has all been kicked of by a satisfying combination of Mark B. N. Hansen, Martin Arnold, William Carlos Williams, a dissertation on trickster myth in Ted Hughes, and getting to play with the new SONY Reader Touch, and I just thought I’d post some of the things that have been buzzing round my head as I prepare for a conference at the end of the month (I'll post the paper when it's done).

I really wanted to like SONY’s last reader, the PRS 505, but the screen’s contrast was shot, and the pages turned with what felt like a couple of seconds’ sickening wipe and refresh, a double flash that I was never going to be able to ignore. “When the pages turn faster,” I thought, “when text is black, when it doesn’t look like a breadboard mated with a calculator, then I’m in.” But that wasn’t true. I’m an annotator as well as a lover of the book form (the two, for me, being connected rather than mutually exclusive, but then I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics and the function of a well creased spine and a dog-eared page). I knew that, really, the time when I would make the jump to digital reading would come when I could scribble on the screen, highlight passages and copy them into my essays, and most importantly turn the page with the smooth flick of a finger across a touchscreen.

How on earth is that day here already, within spitting distance of the first generation? It’s incredible, it’s marvellous, I still won’t buy one.

The problem is my life’s been ruined by experiencing the iPhone. Now nothing less than intuitive multi-touch screens with near-zero latency will impress, and that’s a long way off for eink, the only part of the SONY Reader that was really exciting in the first place. The iPhone and it’s gestural controls seem to solve many of the problems of haptic-blindness that I’ve talked about before; I think a gesture at a virtual space could be as significant as a gesture at a physical environment, at least for the limited kinesthetics of the reading experience, where the device should ideally melt away as much as possible (unless the work is deliberately, or even unintentionally, riffing on its own materiality...which I guess all texts do to some degree...hmmm).

The problem, it would seem, is it’s all about sex, or sensuality at any rate. I was reading Mark Hansen’s awesome New Philosophy for New Media when I came across this:

“As art historian Jonathan Crary has demonstrated, all of the precinematic devices involved some central element of manual action on the part of the viewer. One had to yank outward on the two strings supporting the circular face of the thaumatrope; to spin the phenakistiscope, the stroboscope, and the zootrope with one’s hand; to flip manually through the flip book; to crank the handle of the zoopraxiscope and the mutoscope; to move one’s neck and head in relation to the diorama; to walk around within the space of the panorama; and even manually to replace the slides in the stereoscope.

That these manual actions were not simply extraneous to the experience of the illusion of movement - and that they functioned precisely to render this experience a profoundly embodied one - has been suggested by film scholar Linda Williams. According to Williams, these is a sort of elective affinity between the tactile ‘interfaces’ of the precinematic devices and the pornographic image: in both cases, an experience of touch is integral to the efficacy of the visual spectacle” (pp37-38)

When I showed my students two films from Martin Arnold’s The Cineseizure (pièce touchée and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy) for our week on Formalist criticism (there seemed no work more appropriate to demonstrate the distinctions between fabula and szujet, that form is content, and that things can be considered for their own simple beauty whilst slowly offering up unexpected complexity), it struck me just how tactile they are. Alone… is pure sex, an Oedipal nightmare on the one hand, but also featuring an at times incredibly erotically charged Judy Garland, all pouts and quivering lower lip. pièce touchée is subtler in its haptics, ending up referring to male dominion on the screen with positions and gestures, but also making the tactility of its own filmic production, and of the apparatus of film itself, radically obvious, hypermediated, with every touch and flicker of the film brought out, alongside the knowledge of just how much Arnold had to handle the work in order to bring it to the screen.

The sense of touch, as I’ve mentioned before, and will undoubtedly return to frequently on this blog, fascinates me when it comes to written texts, particularly the root problems of a missed pleasurable tactility at the heart of but-you-can’t-read-it-in-the-bath arguments against ‘technologising’ reading (as if books weren’t already deeply technical productions, though ones, I guess, of heavy touch - the finality of the printing press hitting the page, the links to the smashed keys of the typewriter, all lost now in the age of digital printing and word processing, but still lurking in the background). These might well be linked to an almost sexualised touch (“there’s something about books, the way they smell, the way the feel…”).

Richard Morgan, in his Z-movie-style cyber-trash novel Altered Carbon, does a rather stellar job of going through all the implications of ‘re-sleeving’ the human mind in a variety of bodies, and goes so far as to sex (gender) the touch of skin:

“Drunk one night, Sarah had told me Women are the race Tak. No two ways about it. Male is just a mutation with more muscle and half the nerves. Fighting, fucking machines. My own cross-sleevings had borne that theory out. To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male. Touch and texture ran deeper, an interface with environment that male flesh seemed to seal out instinctively. To a man, skin was a barrier, a protection. To a woman it was an organ of contact” (150)

Somewhat troubling gender politics aside, the oscillation between skin as barrier and contact point gets to the root of many of the discussions surrounding a Merleau-Pontian notion of Flesh, or a Deleuzian field of anuses, and I’m wondering at the moment whether we can ever connect with our devices, or merely have to hold them apart. Frank Wilson discusses the commitment of the external object into our bodies across history (from apes becoming ‘at-one’ with branches, to contemporary athletes and tool-users operating as if external devices were part of themselves), and it’s incredibly persuasive. But even if such an assimilation is possible with a book, can a digital screen, even one with virtual gestures, ever function in a similar fashion? And what would be the effects if so?

“When the perverse ingenuity of man has outered some part of his being in material technology, his entire sense ratio is altered. He is then compelled to behold this fragment of himself ‘closing itself as in steel.’ In beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it” - Marshall McLuhan

For William Carlos Williams, in his story/essay/article/poem ‘Jacataqua’ (from In the American Grain) the world of machines, of technology, represented our growing puritanical/prudish fear of a tactile world:

“Machines were not so much to save time as to save dignity that fears the animate touch. It is miraculous the energy that goes into inventions here. Do you know that it now takes just ten minutes to put a bushel of wheat on the market from planting to selling, whereas it took three hours in our colonial days? That’s striking. It must have been a tremendous force that would do that. That force is fear that robs the emotions: a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have contact” (pp182-183)

These words of Williams' rang in my head when, during a friend’s dissertation on Ted Hughes, I came across Richard Stivers' assertion that society often sees technology and sex as fundamentally opposite: one ruthlessly efficient, the other messy and inefficient, a ‘pointless’ expense of energy if not used for procreation. I think he’s on to something. Do we want to touch the world anymore? Is the drive away from musty books to sterile screens a continuation of what Williams' saw in the industrialisation of farming? Or could it be the collapse of Stiver's binary?

The iPhone is attractive in its ‘pointlessness’, and charged with its touch; the SONY Reader Touch, despite the promise of its name, is functional, efficient technology, and the urge to touch it is minimal. This is what technology designers now have to deal with. The sexualisation of technology, crossing a gap towards making us want to touch something, is always challenging, and always feels weird. Until it doesn't.

Oh, and I was wrong, broadband is a human right



Saturday, 3 October 2009

On the Defensive

- cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seal particularly - elizabeth bishop - via seamus heaney -

So it turns out that working three jobs, starting term, and handing in your second chapter to be torn apart do not sit well with blogging. Ah well, all will be settled shortly, and I'm just happy that after a month of fighting with technology I finally have Internet in the house and a working computer on my desk (o.k, it's still on the kitchen table until I can get my wireless card sorted, but it's near the kettle and I can see when my washing's done. It may actually have to stay here).

I'm also really excited to start teaching again. 350 new students start their English undergrads on Monday and I've got four minutes to make them excited about the Critical Theory course by saying "what does theory mean to me" in the opening lecture. Thought I'd post what I was going to talk about on here in lieu of any more cogent thoughts. It's a bit didactic and messy, but it's meant to be somewhat inflammatory and thought provoking for people who've never studied anything like this before. I know I could have done with a little more fervour and a little less practicality on my first day at school.

- What Does Theory Mean to You? -

For the moment, let’s just assume the most basic definition of theory for your needs today: theory is a selection of ways of thinking about art and culture, just ways of thinking, and that’ll do. Plenty of people have, and are going to be explaining to you what theory actually consists of. And if you’re in my class I promise I’ll tell you. But that question of, not what is theory, but what does theory 'mean,' that was really interesting, so I thought I’d finish by saying what theory’s meaning is, why theory’s meaningful to me.

Theory’s what I turn to for answers when I wonder “why did that piece of art make me feel so good, so alive, make me smile, or ache, or stamp my feet, make me feel at all?” and “why does that part of our culture make me wince and cringe, make me feel guilty, make me numb, or wonder just what we’ve come to?” “Why does this thing work and yet that thing not?” Part of engaging with university level English is throwing in our chips with a group of people who have historically said: “these things matter.”

Theory’s been my way into appreciating philosophy, and my way out of just accepting things because someone’s said: “that’s just the way they are.”

That said, there’s a lot of bad theory, and bad theory? Bad theory’s worse than waking up in a dress that isn’t yours: it’s ill-fitting, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s stale with the memories of things best forgotten. Bad theory’s to be challenged at every turn and, luckily, good theory teaches you how to do just that.

Theory’s been my way of bringing what I care about, be it music, anthropology, history, popular culture, art, cinema, poetry, books, the internet, physics, comics, linguistics, politics, classics, ethics, or even kinesthetics all to bear on questions like: “what does Jane Eyre mean and why?”

If books are the universe, then theory is the mathematics which lets us perceive how it functions. But, as Niels Bohr once said that “anyone who isn’t shocked by Quantum Mechanics, hasn’t understood it yet,” I would say the same of theory - if you aren’t shocked by its implications then it’s probably time to read more.

Because this is the weird course, the course that can make your head hurt and your conscience pang. This is the course that makes you talk in class when you’re normally silent, and the course that shuts you up when you normally talk non-stop. This is the course, in fact, which in the most hackneyed and bull-shitty way I can muster, actually asks: “what does theory mean to you?”

Because, beyond its history, theory’s not a thing to be tied down and explained, it should be something in motion, like any good way of thinking, always emergent and changing, and most anything I could tell you about theory now, of any real worth, might be a lie within a year. This means that theory doesn’t challenge you to keep up, but instead to learn and overtake it, and for those of us used to being in awe of authors, or even teachers, who are seemingly always ahead, that can be a somewhat liberating experience.

This is honestly the most fun course I’ve ever been a part of, and it can be exciting with very little effort, but I wanted to say all of these things today because I have a terrible fear that some of you might manage to get through an entire degree without asking why whatever you choose to call art and thought are important, why they are vital. If I can offer you anything, here, or over this year, can it be this: ask the question and mean it: “why is this important?” At the very least you’ll never write anything boring, and that’s got to mean something.