SPAM Digest #3 (Nov 2018)

A quick list of the editors’ current favourite critical essays, post-internet think pieces, and literature reviews that have influenced the way we think about contemporary poetics, technology and storytelling.

Deborah Smith of Tilted Axis Press on translation, at the International Literature Showcase 2017.

Literature from outside of Europe tends to get read more anthropologically than as art, and so we’re publishing you things that are surreal or experimental , or that are at least innovative in some way.

Deborah Smith talks here both of translation and the ethos behind the non-profit press she founded, Tilted Axis. One of the points that resonated most with me was her recognition that literature outside of Europe, more often than not, is read anthropologically rather than as art. Is it a fair assumption to say that we, as western readers, would see a work of Thai or Indonesian literature as a doorway to furthering our understanding of that culture, but would be slower to consider the work critically and artistically, even when the style, form and ideas are innovative and experimental? Speaking on behalf of myself, I would say I’ve been prone to this. 


Of course, translated literature, the ‘lifeblood of English’, as Smith puts it, does offer us an opening into cultures, traditions and ideas different from our own. Yet I found it truly refreshing when purchasing Prabda Yoon’s Moving Parts from Tilted Axis to not find myself pondering what this book will teach me about Bangkok Culture. When reviews from authors such as Eley Williams read ‘Sleek, supple and soaring – in this extraordinary translation, Prabda Yoon’s stories command your attention’, any anthropological curiosities are overtaken by artistic interest.


As Smith points out in this talk, translators act as the literary ‘gatekeepers’, deciding which works make it across our borders. Traditionally, more unknown and underrepresented writers from countries in Asia haven’t had such a platform to share their works in English, with larger publishing companies picking the writers they deem to be worthy of translating. Founded only three years ago, in 2015, Smith’s press is the first to publish contemporary fiction in Uzbek and Thai in the United Kingdom. Just with that achievement alone, I think it would be fair to say that Tilted Axis is unique in the platform it is offering to the British public. 


M.P.

Emoji Dick and the Eponymous Whale, An Essay in Four Parts’ by Lisa Gitelman on Post45


[This strong recommendation comes with a flashing *very long read* alert]

This is without a doubt the most thorough and exhaustive commentary on the seminal post-iphone experiment that is Emoji Dick – an pictorial novel written by Herman Melville, edited and compiled by Fred Benenson, and translated into emoji by the hundreds of labourers that quietly operate behind Amazon Mechanical Turk . Gitelman’s essay approaches the Melville x Benson enterprise as ‘a ludic contact zone between human intelligence and algorithmic processing’, and as a beautifully layered example of what falls ‘between literature and whatever the fate of the literary may be in an ever more digitally mediated and data-described world’.


What stands out about this essay is that Gitelman chooses to focus on the easily overlooked conditions of textual production involved in such a complex experiment – one that could, perhaps superficially, be considered simply for its conceptual significance. Gitelman draws parallels between the material manufacture of Moby Dick, the 19th-century physical novel, and the genesis of Emoji Dick the kick-started, self-published, on-demand book (do we still get to call it a novel?), as well as the politics behind the different types of labour involved in such different processes (from physical typesetting and letterpress printing, to crowdsourcing, algorithmic mediation and coding).


Questions of pictorial and collaborative translation are also raised, with reference to the west’s early approaches to Chinese and Japanese pictograms, the struggles that go along with the digitisation of the physically printed, the potential shortcomings of pictorial cataloging through linguistic methodologies, and illegibility as an artistic or conceptual statement in today’s literary landscape.

‘My students have observed that half the fun of Emoji Dick is saying it. They like the word dick, yes, but there is pleasure in the whole title. The word emoji, like the word perestroika is an untranslatable. It functions as a “checkpoint,” marking a historically specific zone of contact and frisson between languages, the paradoxical crux of incommensurability and pleasurable accommodation. And just as perestroika is a Romanized untranslatable that we can date to the Gorbachev era of the 1980s, emojiis a transliterated untranslatable evolved in and of our networked present. Like other untranslatables, it can be reckoned “as a linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic uses."’

D.B.

‘Of Donuts I Have Loved’, by Miranda Dennis, Granta


I’ve been thinking about the value of the empty calorie lately. What it means to say, ‘treat yourself’ and how capitalism confects a version of spiritual nourishment that often comes in greasy wrappers. The damage and beauty in that, a little transient snack for the stressed commuter. To bestow upon your workmates a box full of donuts. Lore of rings and holes, orbital dough and icing halos. The donut’s performative, Sunday innocence. In a series of shorts that detail encounters with donuts, Miranda Dennis sketches a lovely reflection on hunger and care and the need to feel ‘whole’. The way our favourite snack brands offer a pharmakon source of regret and relief, how we find ourselves glitched on sugar’s addictive logic. She depicts a soft phenomenology of the donut. To see yourself sweet, to indulge those rituals that make us feel safe. This is the culinary memoir I want to read: not an oyster in sight, no grumpy men in whites with knives; instead the playful economy of snacks and comfort and female bodies. The acknowledgement of food as more than an expression of style or embodied nutrition. Food as narrative fact, as catalyst for complex affects: the precise oscillations between sadness and joy, the transitional digest of mood within us. 


M.S.

What is the internet? by Ian Sample, The Guardian


Most people, myself included, would think to know the answer to a question as obvious as this. Having been present at the Dark Mycology reading group, run by the Glasgow based Art & Ecology collective, I noted that one guest speaker pointed out how many people never envisage the  internet in its physical form, and speak of it as if it really were wholly immaterial.


If someone were to ask me ‘what is the internet?’, I’d tend to explain it as a network of connections, focusing mostly on its functions/what it makes possible. My answer would probably focus on the immaterial, the web of shared information existing in a hyperspace, seemingly without any grounding in the physical world. Flashes of hyperlinks and search engines would surface before any images of deep sea ethernet cables came to mind. The question of what the internet actually is in its physical form didn’t come as wholly new knowledge to me. Nor would I imagine it does for many others. Yet although I was at least partially aware of these elements, there’s something quite novel about picturing the internet for what it is in its material form: hundreds of thousands of miles of underwater cables spanning all corners of the globe, connecting hundreds of nations. 


To try to visualise the seemingly endless bank of information that flows through cables the width of hosepipes is quite magical when you consider the specifications of such a network: information passing at the speed of light through fibre optic threads the width of a single hair. There’s something so painfully delicate about that image when you begin to think how more and more to the elements that allow our lives to function rely on the intactness of those small, underwater tubes. With an ever-growing number of lives now inseparable from online space, matched with a  growing dependence on connectivity, it is too interesting to see how even in its physical form, all users are connected. The damage to two marine cables near the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which left many users in India and Pakistan without internet, illustrates how delicate such seemingly secure connections can be.

M.P.

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