SPAM Digest #4 (Jan 2019)
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
Having had my curiosity of the physicalities of the internet sparked by a guest speaker at the Dark Mycology reading group organized by Glasgow collective A&E, a term that stuck with me was the Wood Wide Web. It seemed as though there were comparisons to be drawn by the way the internet functions with those of forests. In particular, the idea that the collaborations between plants and fungi in a given space can allow us to conceive of a dense woodland area as a single superorganism, much in the same way the thousands of ethernet cables that enable global communications can be conceived of as a single network or organism with the term ‘internet’. What this Wood Wide Web actually comes down to is encapsulated in the term ‘mycorrhiza’.
This word comes from a melding of the Greek word for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). It’s semantic form mirrors its biological definition, the growing together of roots and fungi. Through this formation, individual plants are linked together through an ‘underground hyphal network’, one that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.
Mycologists have come to picture this partnership between certain types plants and fungi as a symbiosis, one that connects rather than infects. Visualised in a way that reminds me of fibre-optic threads, certain fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae. These tubes run through the soil, right through to the tips of certain plant roots, reaching them at the cellular level, a process mycologists believe to be around four hundred and fifty million years old.
The implications of this multispecies system go beyond the mere exchange of nutrients between certain plant and fungi. What is perhaps most intriguing is the revelation of both communicatory and utilitarian systems that this reveals. One example being that a dying tree has the ability to pass over its resources to other trees for the well-being of the community. This goes hand in hand with the trees’ abilities to send out warning messages to its neighbours, alerting them to infection from insects such as Aphids, instructing them to raise their defensive responses before the insect reaches their roots. Whilst, as this article points out, above ground communication between plants has been known for some time, it is the precision of such warnings between source and recipient that flow through the myco-net that raises big questions in relation to ecosystems. One of the most captivating, and perhaps most pertinent, in an age where transhumanism is gaining popularity, is about where one species begins and another ends.
What a relief it is to have a word that legitimates the ache of a crush, placed in context. As part of Real Life’s ‘NEW FEELINGS’ column, Molotkow’s essay explores the condition of ‘limerence’: an ‘infatuation’ that is tormentingly ‘both all-consuming and totally frivolous’. Citing Dorothy Tennov’s 1979 book, Love and Limerence, Molotkow considers the term as a state of being, a cleaving within the daily that creates its own pulse and energy — both ‘disruptive and wasteful’, an outsourcing of pain; but also a drive and a joy. To have a ‘limerent crush’ is ‘a quick and deep way of reaching beyond yourself’; perhaps a solution to the refractions of narcissism which plague our lives online. Usefully, Molotkow situates limerence within the phenomenology and infrastructure of the internet, its mediated impulse towards constant contact, connection, immediacy.
We might think of limerence as an intensification of what Kathleen Stewart calls ‘ordinary affects’: ‘the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergence’. Like clouds, limerent crushes are made of vapour — so many scenes, pixelations of memories and images — and they loom over you awhile, and eventually will almost certainly dissipate. There is a potential resistance to tuning into limerence, the way it distracts one’s attention from the quantitative mundanity of labour, of daily existence. Overwhelmingly, however, contemporary capitalism keeps us on the self-producing circuit of an orbital, lovesick sugar rush: ‘social media platforms and search engines both mimic the structure of an obsession and provide new compulsions for it’; ‘the internet has a way of literalizing obsession’.
Ultimately, crushes are less about the crush and more about the sufferer of limerence itself. Obsession breeds self-obsession, a negative inward folding. And yet this is where all the valuable, lamenting art, the poems and lovelorn ballads come from. Beam me up, softboi (and the problematic gender divisions therein such crushing)! The advantage of the limerent experience is its allowance of a gap, of room for fantasy within everyday life. Molotkow posits the relatable idea that the preferred kind of relationship is one ‘wherein you remain at a distance while giving each other something to think about’. The internet makes visible the footprints of your longing: those read receipts, unsent messages, time since last online, Instagram stories that vanish by morning. Maybe the kindness of strangers is the trade of impressions, the chance nick of intimacy that occurs in the virtual or IRL city. The residue traces of crushes you miss, little hurts that throb like an old toothache.
Allison Parrish (a poet, computer programmer, force of nature, and generally massive crush of mine) introduces in this lecture the fascinating concept – or rather, possibility – of representing ordinary and literary language as a spectrum of vectors, that is as an assemblage of the data-storing elements on which computer programming language is built.
Parrish’s talk stems from Amiri Baraka’s seductive vision of an imaginary writing-machine that could be commanded with our entire body as opposed to only with our fingers – a sort of writing-theremin. Would it be possible, Parrish asks, to create an interface that could similarly allow us to translate bodily gestures into language? Parrish finds the main issue with the Barakian project in a crucial difference between sound and language; namely, that sound is continuous and measurable, whereas language isn’t. The real question, then, becomes whether or not it is possible to represent language as a continuous function. Hence, Parrish’s attempt to contemplate how we might go about turning words into vectors.
Parrish then goes on to explain the way she attempted to go about it herself. Her starting hypothesis is a distributional one: linguistic items with similar distributions tend have similar meanings (i.e. words that occur in similar linguistic patterns must have related meanings). Her method, then, was to transform words into numerical vectors derived from an analysis of which words behave similarly in a sample textual database (for example, according to her methodology, superlative adjectives or the names of months ended up being represented as very similar vectors).
The productive and exciting part of Parrish’s enterprise is that once words are reduced to vectors, all sorts of mathematical operations can be performed on them. Average vectors-words can be calculated within a particular set or source text (the average between ‘day’ and ‘night’ in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is ‘morning’ or ‘evening’), and so can sum-words, subtraction-words, and all sorts of alterations (also in Dracula, water + frozen = ice). Moreover, Parrish highlights that because word vectors consist in a continuous representation of meaning, that is they can be represented as a continuous wave form, like an audio file or an image, then operations typical of these formats can also be applied. Vectorial texts can be blurred, compressed, and blended with other texts at different gradients (which she codes an interface to do!).
The talk is 40 minutes long and tbh worth all of your time – but if you need convincing, you might want to start with the text-merging experiments start around the 20 min mark :’)