MJD 59,514

This entry is part 21 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

This Captain’s Log blogchain has unintentionally turned into an experiment in memory and identity. The initial idea of doing a blogchain without meaningful headlines or fixed themes — partly inspired by twitter and messenger/Slack/Discord modes of writing — was partly laziness. I was tired of thinking up sticky and evocative headlines, plus I was getting wary of, and burned-out by, the unconsciously clickbaity nature of headlined longform.

I couldn’t remember anything of what I’ve written here, so I just went back and read the whole series, all 20 parts, and it’s already slipped away from my mind again. Names are extraordinarily strong memory anchors and without them we barely have textual memories at all. I can recall the gist of many posts written over a decade ago given just the name or a core meme, but for this blogchain, even having re-read it five minutes ago I couldn’t tell you what it was about. The flip side is, it wasn’t actively painful to reread the way a lot of my old stuff is (which is why I rarely re-read). In some ways it was kinda surprising and interesting to review. The lack of names means a lack of fixed mental models of what posts were about. It’s weird to be able to “cold read” my own posts. It’s like simulated Alzheimer’s or something, and it’s almost scary. It would be terrible to go through life with this level of non-recall.

The amnesiac effect of lack of names is reinforced by the lack of narrative, which is a function of lack of theme (or more concretely, lack of memetic cores). Over the 20 parts so far, I’ve wandered all over the place, with no centripetal force driving towards coherence. The parts were also far enough apart, there was no inertia from being in the same headspace between parts. It’s been a random walk of my mind.

This feels weird. It’s easy to remember at least a few highlights of themed blogchains, even if they lack a proper narrative throughline. I have a (very) vague sense of the ideas I’ve covered in the Mediocratopia or Elderblog Sutra blogchains for instance. Even if there isn’t a necessary order and sequence to the writing, a themed series grows via a web of association. So if you recall one thing, you remember some other things.

But order matters too. We remember things more easily when there is a natural and necessary order to them. This was reinforced for me in this blogchain in dealing with a bug The series plugin I use screwed up and indexed several of the posts out of order, which I took 5 minutes to fix. But reading the posts out of order made zero difference. Since they are not related, either by causation or thematic association, order is neither necessary, nor useful. It’s like how chess players have uncanny recall of meaningful board positions that can actually occur in a game, but not of boards with randomly placed pieces. It’s more than a mnemonic effect though. There is intrinsically higher randomness to a record of unnamed thoughts. The only order here is that induced by me and the world getting older.

This all seems like downsides. Recall is far worse, coherence is far worse. For the reader, the readability is far worse. Is there any upside to writing in this way? I’m not sure. It does seem to tap into a sort of atemporal textual subconscious. It also makes for a very passive mode of writing. A name is a boundary that asserts a certain level of active selfhood. A theme is a sort of grain to the interior contents. A narrative is a sequence to the contents. Each of the three elements acts as a filter to what part of the outside world makes it into the writing. When you take down all three, the writing occupies something like an open space where ideas and thoughts can criss-cross willy-nilly. It is homeless writing, with all the attendant unraveling and disintegration of the bodily envelope (I wrote about this in a paywalled post on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter).

A named idea space is a space with a wall. A named and themed idea space is a striated space with a wall (in Deleuze and Guattari sense). A named, themed, and narrativized space is a journey through an arborescence. A nameless, themeless, storyless space develops in a rhizomatic way, reflecting the knots and crooks of the environment. It is not just homeless writing, it is writing where there’s nobody home. It’s the textual equivalent of the “nobody home” affect of far-gone mentally unravelled homeless people.

Another data point for this effect. I just finished a paper noteboook I started just before the pandemic. So it’s taken me about 2 years to fill up. Back in grad school, 20 years ago, I used to be very diligent with paper notes. There was a metacognitive process to it. I’d summarize every session’s notes, and keep a running table of contents. I’d progressively summarize every dozen or so sessions. My notes were were easy and useful to review. Now I’m lazy, I don’t do anything of that sort. It’s just an uncurated stream of consciousness. With just a few pages left in the notebook, I tried to go back and reconstruct a table of contents (thankfully I was at least dating the start pages of each session) but it was too messy, hard, and useless, so I gave up. Progressive summarization ToC-ing is only useful and possible when you do it nearly real time. Naming and headlining work only when you name and headline as you work. So what I have with this latest filled notebook is just one big undifferentiated idea soup that’s nearly impossible to review. It’s worse than Dumbledore’s pensieve. It’s something of a memory blackhole. It is recorded but not in a usefully reviewable way. But arguably, not doing the disciplined thing led to different notes being laid down. I thought and externalized thoughts I would otherwise not have thought at all. I can’t prove this, but it feels true. And while it’s harder to review, perhaps the process of writing made it more transformative?

About the only thing I’ve been able to do with both this blogchain and the paper notebook, in terms of review, is go back (with a red pen or the editor) and underline key terms/phrases, and maybe tabulate them elsewhere into an index. I can trace the evolution of my thought through the index phrases. These nameless memories are indexable, but not amenable to structuring beyond that. It’s the part of your mind that you can Google but not map (this is the real “googling yourself”). These are demon notebooks. It’s dull to review now, but in a few years perhaps, it will be interesting to review as a record of what I was thinking through the pandemic. Maybe latent themes will pop.

Twitter of course is the emperor of such demon notebooks, though shared with others. I’ve taken to calling the nameless structures that emerge in my tweeting threadthulhus. These blog and paper demon notebooks though, are not threadthulhus. They are more compact and socially isolated. They are lumps of textual dark matter. They are pre-social, more primitive. They lack the identity imposed by mutualism.

With both this blogchain and my unreviewable demon paper notebook, I think I’ve kinda explored what names/headlines, target themes, and narratives do in writing: they alienate you from your own mind by allowing you to create a legible map of your thoughts as you think. Anything you structure with a name/theme/narrative (the alienation triad) is a thing aside from yourself that you can sort of distance from yourself and point to as an object, and let go off, and even meaningfully sell or give away to others. Alienation is packaging for separation. Anything that you don’t do those things to remains a part of you. This is not a bad thing. Not everything you can think is ready to be weaned from your mind. Even if you’re willing to share it with the world, it does not mean you are able to separate it from yourself. Just because you make second brains doesn’t mean first brains disappear. Exploring them is a distinct activity.

This sort of writing is arguably indexical writing. Writing as self-authorship. What doesn’t have its own name, theme, and narrative is part of you. In fact the only thing holding it all together is the fact that you’re writing it. This is a self-reinforcing effect. The act of writing in that mode sort of encourages those least detachable thoughts in your head from emerging and making themselves available to hold and be.

There is a paradox here. The most indexical writing is also the most open-to-the-world writing since it lacks filters. So it is both a self-authoring process and a self-dissolution process. What comes out is both most truly you, and not you at all. Self-authorship and self-dissolution are two sides of the same coin. Being is unbecoming. To be homeless is for there to be nobody home.

You could argue that it is the process of giving names, boundaries, and thematic and narrative structure to thoughts to externalize them that is a highly unnatural and strange process. Like mutilating your brain by carving out chunks of it to push out. I am not sentimental enough about the writing process to actually feel that way, but I kinda get now what angsty poets must feel.

I think this is the key difference between diary-writing or journaling and “writing.” The lack of traumatic separation and self-alienating packaging.

This experiment hasn’t yet run its course, and I might keep it going indefinitely, but I think I finally understand the point of it, and why I unconsciously wanted to do it and why I feel it helps the other writing.

Where do you go from this kind of writing? Well, if you continue down this course — and I already see this happening a bit — you head towards increasingly commodity language. You seek to avoid evocative turns of phrase, stylistic flourishes, and individual signature elements — anything that asserts identity. You seek to make the writing unindexable, not just unmappable. You seek to go beyond individual self-authorship and channel a larger vibe or mood. Or maybe you try to fragment your own mind into a bunch of authorly tulpas. Or maybe you mind-meld with GPT-3 and write in some sort of transhuman words-from-nowhere mode. Ultimately you get to various sorts of automatic writing. I don’t necessarily want to go there, but it’s interesting to see that that’s where this path leads. This is the death of the author as an authorial stance as opposed to a critical readerly stance. It’s a direction that naturally ends in a sort of textual suicide. At the level I’m playing it, it’s merely a sort of extreme sport. Textual base-jumping perhaps. But this direction has strong tailwinds to it. Increasingly large amounts of public text in the world form this sort of featureless mass that’s grist for machine-learning mills, and increasingly, no identity of its own.

You might say the natural end point of this kind of writing is when it becomes indistinguishable from its GPT-3 extrapolations and interpolations.

Or going the other way, there are potential experiments in radical namefulness. Everything is uniquely identifiable, memorable, evocative, and nameable, and has a true name. Narrative coherence is as strong as possible. Thematic structure and causal flow is as tight as possible. Un-machine-learnable texts. I’m not sure that kind of text is even possible.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Isn’t screenplay genre narrative radical namefulness in practice? The elders of screenplay structure insist that the limits of the medium (experiential time) mean condensing content is key — Chekhov’s Gun, etc. The medium of screenplay narrative (as opposed to David Mamet’s dramatic, Matthew Dicks’ oral, and Dan Harmon’s episodic) may be an interesting addition to the Narrativium.

  2. I may have mentioned this before, but [Ashby’s notebooks](http://www.rossashby.info/index.html) are a wonderful example of a mix of structure and flow:

    Every time you have something to write, possibly every day, or multiple times a day, write the date, write what you were thinking, and when done, leave a quick reminder of the contents of what you just wrote, and leave a marker.

    Every weekend, review the past week’s work, what category(/ies) they fall into, and add the page numbers to a separate metadata/tag system. (Also number all the pages, unless your notebook already has that)

    One thing I rather like about this approach is seeing your work in two ways, as a momentary generation of thoughts and particular curiosities and observations, and again later as a reflective armchair job of comparing existing work to other themes, reinterpreting it through them etc.

    And because the metadata is not necessarily something that exists in the same context as the file, it can be separated if you want to; you can still skim read your work, having only blank time headings and streams of consciousness, only reaching the equivalent of a title at the end of the statement, which can also bring interesting insights if you discover that this page is something you now see differently to before.

    The existence of final summaries would undermine the unsymbolised memory-void effect, because their purpose is precisely the opposite, so a similar practice would not match so closely, but I found it fascinating how in order to work, he would just revisit the appropriate tags, read through for useful information, and create a new task-specific categorisation of insights that seemed particularly relevant to what he was currently working on.

    At the same time, you can have statements like this, and those that follow it for a few days, balanced ambiguously between personal introspection and his specific field of study.

    • “Every weekend, review the past week’s work, what category(/ies) they fall into, and add the page numbers to a separate metadata/tag system. (Also number all the pages, unless your notebook already has that)”

      Everyone a monk faithfully devoted to the one and only god: the self.

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