By Richard Marshall.
Then what has Kobek done? He has ‘written’ and we are ‘reading.’ The quotation marks are apt. Truman Capote understood the perverse and insidious nature of quotation. He recognised their aweful transgressive power. The experiment in In Cold Blood was to test out the extent of that power. Uncovering the vanity and self-loathing at the heart of his culture, Capote revealed quotation as the monstrous appetite of the contemporary. The quotation throws back the exact repeated self minus the reversing, doubling, distancing flaws of a mirror. By not being a reflection the quotation has a stolid air that is not in the glassy mirror’s nature.
Experiments have revenge effects. Think Frankenstein. The B-movie sci-fi genre specialises in acknowledging the spectral, uncanny forces in prosaic science. We are alert to these dangers in most techno-scientific realms. The generalised response to the recent nuclear power plant disater in Japan was recognition of chickens coming home to roost. The literary world heeds itself less. But after Capote’s genius, all the world became Holcomb, Kansas. We are either the celebrity killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith or the celebrity victims, the Clutter family.
Kobek’s quotidian quotationalism develops from both Capote and the earlier Rodolfo Walsh, author of Operacion Masacre of 1957, which mixed in vicious politics with unpunished murder. Kobek subtly reminds us that if we’re all at the Clutter farm now, then so too is the Arab Spring, Lybia, Syria, Afghanistan, Ground Zero et al.
A string of strange and disturbing quotations present a desolate insidious landscape. Kobek connects global politics with Californication celebrity nnnnn. Kobek presents a tableau of the unhinged aporia of contemporary celebrity culture functioning as a dark segue confronting inequality and injustice. Kobek uses quotation as the defining metaphor of this strange dislocation of existential dementia.
The publisher blurb runs:
‘In 1997, the world obtained a grainy video revealing lurid excerpts from honeymooners Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s post-wedding celebration aboard a small yaht. Laying bare the mysteries of their intimate lives, this video became the first spark in a long and culturally supported trend: the leaked celebrity home movie.
Aligning criminal histories with transcribed extracts from such broadcasts, If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? documents the bathetic moments beyond a publicist’s protective shield, while offering a sobering appraisal of American social justice.’
Is his subject an abstract object, like a set or property, or else a token or some historically stretched object – a common currency term of some sort? Take this: ‘Pamela Anderson does sex tapes’ is true iff Pamela Anderson does sex tapes. What kind of thing have I written in between the quotation marks? A metaphor seizes its opportunities. The murderers of the Clutter family were released on parole from Lansing Correctional Facility and afterwards returned there to be eventually hanged. The facility frames them like quotation marks. All executions at the prison were by hanging until 1965. The death penalty was reinstated in Kansas in 1994 but hanging was considered unscientific and cruel. Executions in Kansas are to be performed by lethal injection now. Strangely, there have been no executions at the prison since the death penalty was reinstated.
The filmed anal rape of Libyan dictator Gaddafi jump cuts into this noxious space. So too, ‘Saddam Hussein is Hanged by a Crowd at a Joint Iraqi-American Military Base outside of Baghdad on Greater Eid.’ Is this an attempt to show there is a unified Kantian space, that there is always a way of travelling from here to there? Or is this a version of chemists classifying crystals as left or right crystals? You change a left crystal to a right crystal, and vice versa, by passing them through a fourth dimension, and therfore instead of a unified space have different spaces. How else explain the shift from Hussein to ‘Paris Hilton Uses a Computer Topless While Preparing to Smoke Marijuana From a Dragon-Shaped Bong with Tommy Hilfiger Model Jason Shaw’ between page 21 and 22?
‘Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee Work on the Manuscript of Their Cookbook.’ The set of contingent creatures quoted in Kobek’s book is an abstract entity. The contingency of what it contains proves that some abstract entities are contingent too. We may ask then whether the abstract morality that governs our world is merely contingent? Where lies intrinsic value, be it merely a contingent intrinsic value? A metaphor carries sinister hidden meanings. Some can be ambiguous. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is an American Christian prison programme operated by the Prison Fellowship Ministries established by Chuck Colson.It is a recepiant of 501(c)(3) tax exemption for organisations operating exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary or educational purposes. It is used at Lansing Correctional Facility under the name Brothers in Blue because Chuck Colson’s organisation withdrew funding.
Chuck Colson was one of President Richard Nixon’s hatchet men. He became a celebrity during the Watergate scandal. He was sentenced to one to three years but served a mere seven months in Maxwell Prison in Alabama. He was one of the ‘Watergate Seven.’ His co-conspirators were John N. Mitchell who faced a maximum 30 years in prison, was sentenced to two and a half to eight years and served 19 months. H.R. Haldeman faced a maximum of 25 years in prison but received an 18 month sentence. John Ehrlichman faced a 25 year sentence but served 18 months in prison. Gordon C. Strachan faced a maximum of 15 years in prison but all charges were dropped. Robert Mardian faced five years in prison but his conviction was overturned on appeal. Kenneth Parkinson faced ten years in prison but was acquitted at trial. Nixon refused all of them amnesty.
Chuck Colson was instrumental in trying to defame and destroy Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg discovered the Ellsberg Paradox. The Ellsberg Paradox states that decisions made in conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity may not be consistent with well defined subjective probabilities. He was the whistle-blower of the Pentagon Papers. These were top secret files that showed that the US State department lied about the likely number of casualties of the Vietnam war and that they knew it was a war they couldn’t win. The Johnson Administration had lied systematically to the public and to Congress about transcendent interests.
Ellsberg met Gary Snyder to discuss what he should do. Snyder is a poet who emphasises metaphysics and celebrates the natural order. He is part of the San Francisco Renaissance alongside Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. He looks to the orient and the beliefs of American Indians, logging and trail building to articulate a poetry of possible religious belief independent of Western culture. He was a Beat with Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He read ‘The Berry Feast’ in October of 1955 at San Franscisco’s Six Gallery the same night Ginsberg read ‘Howl’. Zen study took him to India and Indionesia and Istabul. On the Yuba river you’ll find him living now, in the Northern Nevada Mountains.
Chuck Colson was part of the efforts to destroy Ellsberg. A plot involving Cuban American waiters in the Washington Hotel was designed to either assassinate Ellsberg or make him appear a burnt out drug case but was ‘put into abeyance pending another opportunity.’ Snyder might see in this an evil sideways scroll painting, a story of a human event on this planet. Bob Dylan, writing ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll‘, knows that Zangzinger’s analogous crime is not received by justice. The law’s sentence is shaming. Snyder and Dylan both know that these events either quote or are quoted by the Clutter event timelessly.
Chuck Colson is part of all this. He turned evangelical Christian. He runs the Prison Fellowship Ministry. He has received fifteen honorary degrees to date since leaving prison after a mere seven months. He has received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which is worth over a million US dollars, donating all the money to his charity. War criminal George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008.
Frontman for Colson’s BreakPoint radio broadcasts is Eric Metataxas. Metataxas is a cultural commentator for ultra-fascist FoxNews. Metataxas wrote a book about pacifist theologian Bonhoeffer that said Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist and that he never wrote about ‘religionless Christianity’ in Letters and Papers From Prison. Bonhoeffer actually made the ‘religionless Christianity’ a core of his Ethics. Lauren Green of FoxNews.com wrote that Matataxas showed that Bonhoeffer’s legacy was ‘the untold dangers of idolizing politicians as messianic figures . . . today as well.’ Metataxas made comments on FoxForum discussing White House Christmas celebrations indirectly connecting Obama with Herod. The evangelical fascist right is more effecive than Hitler in driving forward the same core fascist policies. Muslims are right to be tense, as are non-US evangelical Christians and conservatives alongside the usual targets – centre and left intellectuals, non-straights, non-whites, non-men and the middle class and poor.
‘Vince Neil Bounces On A Bed While Being Videotaped by Baywatch Actress Brandy Ledford.’ Quotation has features that make theories answering the above question hard. They are opaque. Philosophers use this term to name the phenomenon whereby the substitution of a synonymous term fails to preserve the meaning of the original term. Like ‘US evangelical’ for ‘Christian.’ ‘Republican’ for ‘Conservative.’ Brandy Ledford says that Jesus is her best friend.
‘Paris Hilton Employs Racial Epithets While Dancing Awkwardly With Her Sister Nicky Hilton.’ Quotation is a feature of linguistic self reference. It hooks onto the part of the world that is language. Quotation is used to talk about itself. It is a device for doing this and so (I’ll sugest below) is not a name, a demonstration, an indexing device (now, I, you, yesterday etc – terms indexed against something in order to deliver its sense) denotation, quantification or predication. These are always means by which language hooks onto other parts of the world. But because quotation operates where language is hooking onto the part of the world it occupies itself, the quotation device is different. As such, quotation is a perfect analogy for celebrity. Celebrity is life arranged according to the structure of quotation. Celebrity hooks onto itself. It is peculiarly, sincerely, self referencing. Kobek possesses this insight as he turns in his non-servile presentation as a kind of meditation in action of the celebrity machine. He presents his series of celebrities as a cobble of stones laid as a Snyderish rip-rap on the slick rock of metaphysics.
‘Tom Sizemore Delivers a Soliloquy After Having sex with a Prostitute.’ If someone uses the word ‘says’ as in ‘Pamela Anderson says she makes sex tapes’ then to understand her requires we understand quotation. What seems straightforward in fact involves some hard and pressing questions. Quotation is interestingly strange in that it causes problems for ideas about how we are able to produce infinite numbers of sentences from a finite number of symbols within a linguistic lexicon. But quotation allows us to construct sentences using symbols outside our lexicon. It allows us to use symbols from alien lexicons. It allows us to use symbols from no one’s lexicon. “Grzxswqayghvb lll 1@£$%^-’ said Paul’ is a meaningful sentence despite the content of the quotation. This helps us grasp the idea that we understand these as celebrities even if we do not understand them. The mystery of celebrity returns us archaic values and a moment across an horizon. As the killers in In Cold Blood approach Holcomb the Clutters go about their business oblivious to the fact. We ask who were the last to see them alive, before becoming quotations. There is a sadness when we ask of the celebrity who was there before: it is something lonesome and ‘out there’ that can be transcribed only in an unknowable lexicon.
‘Tom Sizemore Delivers a Soliloquy While In Bed with a Prostitute.’ Quotation raises interesting issues for the divide between semantics and pragmatics. This is the issue about whether the quotations have meaning or are better thought of as pragmatic fillers substituting for a fully meaningful phrase. Quotation reveals issues about distinguishing between semantic and non semantic properties. This is a question often raised regarding celebrity. Are they merely pragmatic fillers substituting their half-life glow for something more fully realised elsewhere? Politicians, film stars, porn stars, singers and reality tv celebrities raise the question of what we mean by meaningful, what we take in when we call someone ‘real’. Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that those on reality TV were too fully convinced of their reality to be anything more than self-cancelling. Or came close to saying that.
What fixes the meaning of an indexical word like ‘I’? Some want to say it’s the context. ‘I’ has its content fixed by whoever tokens it. The idea of this ‘fixity thesis’ is pretty widespread but it won’t work in the case of quotation. The meaning of Holcomb is beyond context. Or ignores it.
‘Colin Farrell catcalls Nicole Narain as She Watches Television Naked.’ Take a Kobek mixed quote: Pamela Anderson agreed with Billy Joe that she should make a new sex tape and said ‘it was so much fun’. Their agreement was, she said, ‘a surprise to the both of us.’ In this case, the ‘us’ doesn’t refer to the writer and another. But the context-sensitive fixity thesis predicts it ought to. Quotation eludes any ‘fixity thesis’.
So what is Kobek doing? Perhaps he is writing quotations, the content of which demonstrate an object. This makes each sequence a demonstration of these people. The quotes are akin to mimicry. On this view quotation is like an exaggerating tone of voice or walking style. You know the kind of thing: we take the local colour and peddle comical satire. We illustrate through remorseless exemplification. This may be a type of this. But perhaps done in a muted fashion, where the humour is so dry we can barely detect its needling smile. Kobek produces an instance of the target behaviour. They attempt to speak in the relevant way. If this is right they become paradigms like gesturing or intonation. A paradigm example: ‘Kim Kardashian and Ray J Wait For Their Flight to Cabo at a Berger King Inside LAX.’
But then quotations look like they are context sensitive again. There are three parameters that are relevant: the target, their relevant features and the point of demonstrating them. This can all be done without quotation marks. They become icons. They are intended to resemble an actuality or an abstract type of such a thing. This is rather like forgetting that celebrity is what is being presented. Quotation without quotation marks isn’t quotation. An icon is not a celebrity (even if some celebrity’s become icons). Hartman’s cafe in Holcomb is an icon: ‘where Mrs Hartman, the proprietress, dispenses sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and 3.2 beer. (Holcomb, like all the rest of kansas, is “dry.”)’
Some quotes are noun phrases. Some are not. When they are not, they are not intended to refer to something. ‘Cat’ refers to cats. What do they do if they don’t refer? They illustrate. A painting of a cat illustrates but need not refer to any cat. Noun phrase quotes refer and can be labeled ‘closed quotations’. ‘Open quotations’ are non-noun quotations that illustrate. Quotation marks recruit the demonstration as a single term, and in so doing what was open becomes closed, a singular noun phrase with referential function. For example, consider: ‘Kid Rock and Scott Stapp Carouse with groupies on a Tour Bus in a Series of brief Vignettes Advertising a legally Blocked Sex Tape.’
This is a business of the sign of signs. If I want to refer to words, then I refer to other people using words. I quote their words to discuss them. Only the quoted words have their usual meaning. But then the words designated aren’t the words or word types themselves. This is too strange without a deal more. It gestures towards an explanation but isn’t actually one. Not yet. Besides, it threatens to turn the celebrities into a strange otherness, more real within self reference than without.
Are the quotations hieroglyphs, as the American pragmatist Quine thought they were? Are the words inside the quotation marks doing something special, and the quotation marks tell you this? But all this slides into context sensitivity once again. Quotations (I repeat) are not context dependent. Quotation always survives transplantation into different contexts. How else explain, for example, the terror of Lynch’s Mullholland Drive where meanings even survive transformation via psychotic transplantation dreams? Where in Lost Highway the futile erotica is a quotation of dumb-blonde stereotyping that dispenses identity swap and hellfire murderousness within the chance framing of a new hair dye. Where in his culminating masterpiece Inland Empire the horror of Holcom’s Spartan people is a dark island lapped by fields of quoted creatures. Rabbits shaped to canned laughter soundtracks, the quality of exiled horrors is a vivid disturbance in that work.
Holcomb shows the meaning of the words in the quotation marks remains stable. Claims that this is not the case over-generalise cases of context sensitivity elsewhere, can’t account for indirect disquotational reports using quotations, can’t guarantee the truth of a strong disquotational schema for quotation ( eg ‘Rebecca Gayheart Sits in a Jacuzzi, naked, While Smoking and Talking With Her Husband, Eric Dane, and Former Miss United States Teen Kari Ann Peniche’ in English is true if and only if Rebecca Gayheart sits in a jacuzzi, naked, while smoking and talking with her husband, Eric Dane, and former Miss United States Teen Kari Ann Peniche), and various other things.
There’s a feature called backward and forward productivity. All it means is that I can go directly from knowing an expression to knowing its quotation, and vice versa. For example, Hickock said that… to Hickock said ‘…..’ If this is so, then it conflicts with any idea that quotations are context sensitive. Whatever the context of the quotation, if I know that he said x, then I know the quotation means x. Reverse productivity means that if I know the quotation then I know theexpression and again, context sensitivity if true would prevent this.
‘Reality TV Contestant Jenna Lewis Prepares to Videotape Herself Having Sex on Her Honeymoon in the Hopes of Furthering Her Career.’ The appeal of context is that it picks up on the data showing that speakers have a great variety of uses for quotation. But the data can’t show that all semantic content is dependent on context. If it were then it would be impossible to account for the datum of normal conversational communication where we are able to say the same thing in different contexts. The Derridean foolishly bites this bullet and denies the datum. A strange sidewise thought intrudes here. Nancy Clutter was the Clutter girl killed in Holcomb. Her boyfriend had been Bobby Rupp. He did marry in time.
Suppressing inconvenient facts is like when ‘Miley Cyrus Smokes Salvia Divinorum, A Legal Hallucinogenic, While Listening to Bush, a British band Fronted by the Husband of Gwen Stafani.’ ‘O My God!’ Quotations are context insensitive. Claims that all meaning is context sensitive are false. Quotation is a clear counter-example. Wittgenstein and Derrida produce theories that fail to track linguistic facts. Bobby Rupp married Colleen Whitehurst, who was sensationally beautiful.
So. If the meanings of quotations are context insensitive then the idea that there is a special use for the language of quotation is not justified. Taking Kolbek quotations as hieroglyphs or as paradigmatic phenomena is a mistake. An alternative is that we should take each quotation as a single unstructured word or sign. According to this false theory quotations are like names. ‘Montana Fishburne, Daughter of Award Winning Actor Laurence Fishburne, Peregrinates Around the Beverly Center, Whilst Being catcalled by a Disagreeable Cameraman.’ The expression quoted is not a component of the quotation expression itself.
Why think this? Quotations can’t tolerate synonymous substitution. If Cicero is the same guy as Tully, it is not permissible to substitute Cicero for Tully in a quotation. So with: ‘Amy Fisher Delivers Her Artist’s Statement in a Suite at the Renaissance Hotel Overlooking the Hollywood United Methodist Church’ we cannot quote this as ‘Elizabeth Bellers Delivers Her Artist’s Statement in a Suite at the Renaissance Hotel Overlooking the Hollywood United Methodist Church.’
But this theory won’t do. If “Home” quotes ‘Home’, then the expression becomes a component of the quoted expression phrase. This is counter to the theory. Quotation doesn’t mimic the relationship between a name and what it names. Here’s another feature of quotation that serves as counterfactuals to several mainstream theories of language. Proper names and what it names are considered arbitrary relationships. ‘A rose by any other name smells just as sweet etc…’ We might want to generalise and say that all words are arbitrary in this sense. Quotations are never arbitrary though. It is not arbitrary that any quotation quotes what it quotes. The quotation “Stewart Home” is non-arbitrary. (Even though Stewart Home might arbitrarily be Karen Elliot or Tony White.)
Another difference between names and quotation can be identified in this fact: when we are given a new name, say ‘Stewart Home’ we can always ask ‘To whom does this name refer?’ But with a quotation it makes no sense to ask of the quotation expression “Stewart Home” what it quotes. Another problem is that there are different syntactic positions for quotations that don’t permit proper name substitutions. “Stewart Home said he thought ‘art was problematic.’” If quotation was a noun phrase then we should be able to insert a name after ‘thought’. But we can’t.
‘Muammar Gaddafi Dies at the Hands of an Enraged, Blood-Thirsty Mob of Libyan Rebels.’ Can we say quotations are demonstrations? Quotation marks pick out tokens of a shape on this theory. Donald Davidson thought this was so. It’s a strong theory because it can handle opacity. There’s no reason to think synonyms will share the same truth values because they are different objects. It can handle the fact that quotations can be any object and can also have limitless application. But there are some problems. One is whether we know the relevant features of the thing being quoted to ensure that we are quoting something. If any shape can be picked out by quotation marks, we’d better know that they have been, rather than just saying that they have because we’re using quotation marks.
Can we be sure that Kobak is actually quoting anything that can be quoted here, or is it just that it appears so? What can’t be quoted? Perhaps a smell has never been quoted? And maybe its because we wouldn’t know how an inscribed shape within the quotation marks would count as picking out relevant features of the type being tokened. Says Lepore and Cappelen when they think about this. The curious ambiguity of existence raised by celebrity is raised in this. Just what or whose emptiness does the celebrity self-reflect? In a late Manet he paints death in the mirror precisely where we stand looking in from outside the painting. Manet’s Paris bar is ‘dry’ Holcomb.
But the main problem is that it too is far too context sensitive. Demonstration is context sensitive and so quotation must be context sensitive. But it isn’t. So quotations are not like proper names, not like demonstratives or quantifiers such as a definite description. They are not non-semantic pragmatic items either.
In ‘Kid Rock and Scott Stapp carouse with Groupies on a Tour Bus in a Series of brief Vignettes Advertising a legally Blocked sex Tape’ Kid Rock says ‘No.’ To understand this we have to understand that ‘‘No’’ quotes ‘No.’ Also, that “Quote no” quotes ‘Quote No.’ What is denoted by the item between quotation marks is the thing itself. Here is the intrinsic core of celebrity cast as a linguistic figure.
The semantic value of the quotable items are the quotable items and not the semantic value of the quotable items. The semantic values of these two quotation expressions are distinct if the expressions are distinct. So opacity is solved because although ‘unmarried man’ and bachelor’ have the same truth value they are distinct items and so cannot be inter-substituted for each other.
Similarly with the issue of quantifying in. The quotable item and not its truth value is the object of quotation and so quantification is vacuous. Similarly with infinitude: we can place a quotable item inside its instances without an obvious upper limit. This is radical: we usually think we operate on a finite list of items but quotation throws that idea into the air. We might worry that a condition for learnability has been compromised. How can we possibly learn a language with an infinite number of items? This accounts for the iterating banality of celebrity.
But the thought is that the infinite quotable items do not require learning new semantic facts. So long as you understand everything else about the sentence containing a quotation you can understand the sentence with the quotation. It is therefore possible to understand sentences with quotable items solely on the basis of understanding sentences without the quotable items. This accounts for the inutterable sadness of celebrity. What they are is dependent on everything they are not.
Quotation allows us to quote items not contained in any extant lexicon. Quotation expressions are not context sensitive, indeterminate nor ambiguous. So only the quotation item can quote the quotation item, not even close approximations will do.
In order to be able to do all this, the quotation item will work like a syntactic chameleon, changing its nature according to the linguistic environment it finds itself in. Sometimes, then, it may be a noun phrase or it might be a verb.
It was never possible to create the longest quotable sentence. This is because for any quotable sentence there is always one that is a word longer. It is not possible to have the actual longest sentence. Nor one of novel length. These facts indicate the hollowness of claims attempting to justify celebrity on its own terms of merit. Thoughts segue to considerations of general inequality on a massive scale out of this.
Yet now we confront the absence of a quoted item. OJ Simpson seems akin to the role of zero in this book. He is marked as an absence of text. ‘OJ Simpson Engages in a Ménage a Trois with His Girlfriend and Penthouse Model Patty Kuprys.’ The text is unavailable, we are told. He is a defined string of no characters, rather than an undefined string. The page is a representation of absence rather than an absence of representation. We our biased against such representation, rather as Descartes was biased against the vacuum.
‘ ’ is taken by Kobek, correctly, to be perfectly grammatical. “ ” quotes ‘ ’. If the semantic value is the quotable item and not the semantic value of the quotable item, then in the empty quotation that is OJ Simpson we wonder if an empty quote can exist. An empty quote has no quotable item to be quoted by definition. Would it not be better to think of the empty quote in terms of a string of blanks rather than an empty string? Why?
Blanks are characters formed by omission. They are symbols that don’t need to be written. There are physical limits to any physical inscription. Engraving under electron microscopes is limited to letters of five atoms tall because of the movement of atoms caused by the technology. Several bibles printed on a single bacterium is impressive but a sign of necessary finite limits to physical inscription.
Roy Sorensen’s accelerated font overcomes the limits of the finite. An accelerated font determines that a sequence of letters in any line are positioned so that the first character position occupies half the region, the second character position occupies half that of the first, the third half of the second and so on. Where I reach the limit of physical inscription (eg the bibles on bacteria limit for example) I can start using blanks. These are not physically inscribed.
The infinite sequence of blanks created by the accelerated font is not a string of blanks forming a sentence but rather a sequence of symbols containing subsequently infinitely many strings. Sorensen’s accelerated blanks can be formed into an infinite number of sequence tokens. Natural languages have infinite number of sentence types, not tokens, because of the recursive functions of language rules. In principle there are infinite sequences that could be produced in natural languages but our finite natures prevents this.
The combination of finite number of speakers results in the fact that only a finite number of sentence tokens have ever been produced. Sorensen’s accelerated font has an infinite number of sentence tokens and so produces more than have ever been produced by human kind. Presuming that humankind will only last for a finite length of time, the accelerated font produces more sentence tokens than will ever be produced. Given that there are in the universe a finite number of possible language users who will also only exist for a finite amount of time, the accelerated font produces more sentence tokens than all the speakers of all the languages in the universe combined will ever produce.
Perhaps Kobek is indeed meaning to indicate that ‘ ’ quotes a blank not an empty string. Perhaps the suggestion is that O.J. Simpson can only be obscured or defaced but never effaced. Perhaps being defined on a page means that I might tear out the page or burn it. In so doing, I might then claim to have defaced the blanks of the accelerated font. But blanks are defined in terms of the space in the page and these are almost entirely empty. Space is indestructible. Burning the page or tearing it out would not affect the sentences of Sorensen’s accelerated font in space.
Blanks are absences of inscription. Inscribed blanks are not blanks, just as false teeth are not teeth, nor decoy ducks, ducks. ‘Like a hole, a blank only has extrinsic properties. It is a parasitic entity,’ says Sorensen. Here is a reason why people are not computers. People are not limited to occurant believed sentence tokens written in a language of thought because that would limit their beliefs to the number of sentence tokens they had. But use of Sorensen’s accelerated font shows a finite brain could create an actual infinite number of beliefs. A computer has to use inscribed notation and so would be incapable of using the accelerated font. A computer would have a limit to the number of sentence tokens it could produce.
Sorensen’s accelerated font produces infinitely longer lipograms than any that will ever be written. A lipogram is a string of sentences omitting one or more letter of the alphabet. Perec’s novel La Disparition (A Void omitted the letter ‘e’ and has been thought the longest lipogram. But the lipogram of the accelerated font omits all letters and is infinitely long. Similarly with palindromes. Palindromes are expressions that mean the same in reverse. This is shown by consideration of the fact that each sentence in the accelerated font is an ambigram – it is an expression that looks the same in the mirror vertically, horizontally and when rotated.
A blank has the prospect of being the most important symbol. Symbols shorten as they grow in importance. The blank is the apotheosis of short and so suggests an infinite importance. They occupy a logical limit to the hierarchy of significance. O.J. then acquires this significance here. He becomes reduced to a blank as his significance grows exponentially.
An empty string however can be reached by subtraction to zero from a string of blanks. An empty string has zero length, is a substring of every string and juxtaposing any string with an empty string yields the string itself. If O.J. Simpson was merely a string of blanks then the quotation ‘ ’ would contain the character of a blank. As such, the blank would be the quoted item and the strangeness would be obviated. We would be again using characters. However, we would have changed the meaning of the quotation: an empty string represents an absence of characters and, therefore, blanks. For an empty quotation to represent an absence of blanks whilst using blanks would be to self contradict. The blank significance of O.J. Simpson is therefore a self-defeater. Standing in for this celebrity world, the self defeat generalises over. This is Kobek’s point.
The empty string strikes us as strange because of epistemological difficulties rather than conceptual, syntactic or grammatical ones. But this is misidentified as being due to perhaps conceptual, syntactical or grammatical issues nevertheless. How to identify an empty string is the chief difficulty.
That language items aren’t usually considered in terms that are more commonly applied to concrete objects is the problem. We are happy to concede epistemological difficulties when trying to locate concrete objects such as mobile phones or socks. We have no compunction to recast the concept SOCK when we can’t find one. Linguistic items strike us differently and we are led astray by believing that common sense approaches to concrete objects mislead us when applied to language. So we conclude the difficulty is conceptual etc.
But this intuition is misleading. We overestimate our knowledge of linguistic theory. We are overopinionated. We are led astray by the ease with which we acquire language, misinterpreting that as evidence for an equal facility for theorising about that acquistion. The strangeness of accepting the empty string quote ‘ ’ is best explained by the epistemological difficulties in identifying such strings. We have many prosaic examples of how we overcome this difficulty. We see shadows and feel holes and cold. We hear silence and pauses. Absences are detectable through proximity and contrast with surroundings. Sophisticates of mathematics are resigned to the singularity of the empty set. Absences can be useful when we want to refer to types. But types of absences are not absences.
Kobek’s world of celebrity is an empty world. As a species of empty world it is recognizably ours. The desolate immorality of the inhabitants is intrinsic. Potential beauty and goodness simply jars against each heap of self reference. We may object and say that this is only someone imagining the spectacle from a certain perspective. We are stipulating our own moral codes. True. We rank empty worlds according to our own standards. Does Kobek think that this universe contains ethically significant abstract entities? Does he think they are necessary, and thus eliminable? Or is the profound moment found in reflection that in the contingency of even such abstracta (were they to exist) these wretched dissolute signs might now be beyond influence? Kobek has offered us a sombre, chilling and detonating howl out of a furious surreal darkness familiar in David Lynch and begun by Capote up at the Cutter’s farmhouse in Holcomb.
Perhaps a correct moral theory could predict what will happen. But we have been incapable of discovering such a theory, even though we can imagine it in stories where the good live happily ever after and the wicked are punished. Even so, the theories we have don’t predict that celebrities will get away with murder, will escape the law and will thrive. They don’t predict that the rich and famous will have everything, and more and more, even as the world burns in their mirrors.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 15th, 2012.