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LET’S say life has arisen somewhere in the universe and that it has been very successful – so successful that it has ventured out into space. Let’s also say that we know nothing about it, and that this birth and maturation all happened so long ago that there has been time long enough for the beings to travel throughout the vast known universe. And finally, assume that these beings want to hang out in the galaxies (for the cuisine, or any other reason) while remaining hidden to us.
Given our current understanding of the physics of information, there’s likely a universal limit to the amount of computational power in a given amount of matter – you can only cram so much information and processing mechanism into your CPU/grey matter. So, assuming this limit is reached, the only way for an enterprising entity to add more intellectual capability is to add more mass. Ergo, our hypothetical superintelligent spacefaring lifeforms are likely to be fairly massive. But all this mass presents a problem – we stipulated that these beings want to keep us in the dark as to their existence, and no matter how clever you may be at concealing your matter (i.e. by ‘cloaking’ or via some other camouflage), gravitational lensing will give you away.
So what’s an alien to do? Well, one way to avoid the gravitational lensing effects would be to become less dense. Light rays would then deflect less, and an extended body could remain undetectable as long as the constituent mass has no apparent absorption or emission of light. (This argument also holds for a being of pure energy, as per Einstein’s relativity it would also produce a gravitational field.)
But there’s one clue that even the most superintelligent of superintelligent life would find difficult to conceal – their large scale effect on the dynamics of galactic material. If these beings became really massive (in summation on the scale of many multiples of stars) they would produce large gravitational effects that would alter the paths of the other (visible) objects in the galaxies they inhabit, effects that are inexplicable in the absence of the extra mass. It may be possible to counteract these effects through compensatory motion, but the energy cost would be so enormous as to be unsustainable. The large scale qualities of the galaxies themselves would tell the tale of their inhabitants presence.
In review, here’s our list of qualities for hidden supermassive superintelligence that like to live in galaxies:
• Result in galaxies with strange behavior
Interestingly, these are all qualities of “dark matter”, the invisible stuff that comprises 84% of the matter in the universe and was first detected indirectly by observations of galactic rotation rates.
This excerpt is from a discussion of Donald Barthelme’s essay Not Knowing, which I am citing from his non-fiction collection of the same name. Below I give Barthelme’s defense of postmodernism and both expand on it and tie it to the theme of my dissertation, namely the relation of medium-responsiveness (that is, work that is produced, at least in part, in conscious response to the material and historical conditions of its medium) to innovative fiction.
Ok, this is not really revised yet and it is 4am, so bear with some possible rough patches. There are also a few statements in the text below that refer to things outside of the excerpt. Most of these are minor and should not interrupt the flow of reading. You should know that Barthelme titles the essay Not Knowing because he believes that not-knowing is an integral part of the writing process, from the blank page to the choices a writer must make about his characters, plot, style, etc. He begins the essay with a kind of craft talk in which he walks the reader through the construction of a story. Below there is a reference to Jacqueline, Jemima, and the handsome thief. Those are all characters from the story at the essay’s beginning.
Caveats aside, here it goes:
Barthelme lists and summarizes the main arguments against postmodernist literature.
The criticisms run roughly as follows: that this kind of writing has turned its back on the world, is in some sense not about the world but about its own processes, that it is masturbatory, certainly chilly, that is excludes readers by design, speaks only to the already tenured, or that it does not speak at all.1
To his credit, Barthelme does not make straw men of his critics. Instead, though with a dose of his characteristic humor, he gives honest attention to the criticisms in order to build the ground for his counterarguments. To Barthelme, what gives postmodernist fiction its real and lasting value is that, in his understanding, it is located “in relation to a series of problems, and … that these problems are durable ones.”2 To the critics of postmodernism’s notorious difficultness and opacity, Barthelme explains that
The problems that seem to me to define the writer’s task at this moment (to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems) are not of a kind that makes for ease of communication, for work that rushes toward the reader with out-flung arms – rather, they’re the reverse. Let me cite three such difficulties that I take to be important, all having to do with language. First, there is art’s own project, since Mallarmé, of restoring freshness to a much-handled language, essentially an effort toward finding a language in which making art is possible at all. This remains a ground theme, as potent, problematically, today as it was a century ago. Secondly, there is the political and social contamination of language by its use in manipulation of various kinds over time and the effort to find what might be called a “clean” language, problems associated with the Roland Barthes of Writing Degree Zero but also discussed by Lukács and others. Finally there is the pressure on language from contemporary culture in the broadest sense – I mean our devouring commercial culture – which results in a double impoverishment: theft of complexity from the reader, theft of reader from the writer.3
The sum effect of these problems, among others, is that for a writer to engage in them “automatically creates barriers to the ready assimilation of the work.” This leads Barthelme to the beautiful formulation: “Art is not difficult because it wishes it be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.” He continues,
However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.4
I’ve presented the core of Barthelme’s argument largely through this series of extended quotations because I want to convey the grain of his thought and the character of his rhetoric. In the space of about a page, he constructs a dense and sophisticated manifesto for literary difficulty, one which we will, at least partially, unpack as it bears on Barthelme’s medium-responsiveness, to fiction as conceived as a response to the conditions of language.
According to the logic of Not Knowing, the primary concerns with which a writer must wrestle, before questions of content, before the goings on of Jacqueline and Jemima and the handsome thief, are questions of how to use language, specifically how to use language in ways that are not already so loaded with popular-cultural, conventional, and political overcodings as to foreclose the possibility of art. Thus, with fiction conceived as the search for “the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken,” the not-knowing of Not Knowing slips into the unknown, and that occluded space must become the site of art. This, in part, is why the literary text must be as an object in the world, so that the language can be seen fresh – confronted as language – and not disappear like window glass, a forgettable clear barrier through which an image appears, and so that that image can be reconfigured through the dense scrim of literary language instead of as the ideologically ready-cooked, worn-in, wholly expected images of ordinary language, of stock phrases, but also of structural and syntactic formulations that have been heard so many times that they are appear for all the world as natural, representative of the order of the world as it should and must be.
Seen thus, Barthelme’s desire for a thoroughly enstranging5 literary language is the logical response to the state of his art and the historical condition of language, his primary medium. For those writers who concern themselves with the problems of language, novelty and innovation are practically imperatives, as their task is the continual refreshing of a language that is constantly in danger of being co-opted and overused. Thus innovation is quite literally a consequence of writerly medium-responsiveness. The inverse of this is alluded to in the parenthetical “(to the extent that he has chosen them as his problems.)” The fiction writer who has not chosen these as his problems is not concerned with his medium and cannot be expected to invigorate it. He will only say what is already known and said. In so doing, he is little more than a copy clerk who we may wish, like Bartleby, would prefer not to write, for what he writes is journalism without the virtue of truth, and so truly only the purest expression of ideology, unwittingly but unmistakably propaganda.
The end of the world – the destruction of human civilization and perhaps the planet – is a terrifying and sad but-not-so-unlikely possible outcome of history. But even if it were inevitable, there are ways by which I can talk myself out of believing the death/fail of humanity is the end of everything. Life might arise on other planets. Perhaps the majority of those instances also end in apocalypse, but only one needs to survive long enough to fulfill the potential of the exploration of space and time for life to be considered a success. However, even if life arose on every planet and all life were to lead to an immortal spacefaring race of beings, there would remain what strikes me as the grimmest of eventualities: The decomposition of the order of the universe and destruction of all that the past amounts to by some basic feature of the universe.
Astrophysics provides a few such theories of eventual universal annihilation: The cold death, the big crunch, and the isolation of all particles.
In the cold death, all matter eventually settles into its lowest energy state, perhaps after being sucked into black holes and regurgitated through Hawking radiation as they evaporate.
The big crunch (which has been decreasing in popularity for a long time) posits that the energy density of the universe is great enough that gravity is able to pull all matter back on itself, with everything getting smashed together in the end.
The last possibility hinges on the existence of the “dark energy” force that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate. If it does exist as we theorize, it may very likely cause all the bits of matter to accelerate away from each other, with the furthest bits going first; The galaxies that the Hubble can just barely see disappear, then the closer galaxies. For a time it would be just our galaxy in the universe, then our solar system, then just the inner planets, then just the earth and the moon, then just the earth, then just us floating in space, then just our molecules, then just our atoms, and finally just their constituent particles, each locked away in their own eternal solitary universe.
So even if we were to solve the problems of today, there lies a distant hurdle that any part of the universe would have to clear in order to avoid the fate of death.
As most of you know, I’ve been neglecting to post on Ghost Island because the vast majority of my critical writerly energies are going to work on my increasingly sprawling and unruly dissertation.
In the hope that there is some crossover interest between readers of this blog and my intended dissertation audience, I’m going to sometimes post some excerpts of my draft if and when they feel like they make sense cut out of context.
Here’s a short one from the chapter on Donald Barthelme’s book, The Dead Father:
William Gass, in a review of Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, observed that,
Dreck, trash and stuffing: these are [Barthelme’s] primary materials. But not altogether. There is war and suffering, love and hope and cruelty. He hopes, as he says in the new volume, “these souvenirs will merge into something meaningful.” But first her renders everything as meaningless as it appears to be in ordinary modern life by abolishing distinctions and putting everything in the present. He constructs a single plane of truth, of relevance, of style, of value – a flatland junkyard – since anything dropped in the dreck is dreck, at once, as an uneaten porkchop mislaid in the garbage.
This analysis is as true for The Dead Father as it is for Barthelme’s stories. Of course, this does not mean simply that the beautiful, meaningful, and affecting aspects of his fiction are simply devalued and stripped of their power to impact the reader. That he works with trash does not make of Barthelme’s books undifferentiated garbage fields. Barthelme, Gass argues, “has the art to make a treasure out of trash to see out from inside it, the world as it’s faceted by colored jewelglass[.] A seriousness about his subject is sometimes wanting. When this obtains, the result is grim, and grimly overwhelming.” Here and elsewhere in his essay, Gass draws his readers’ attention to various “treasures” and “grimly overwhelming” passages Barthelme has assembled. These are often short outcroppings of text – a sentence, a paragraph – in which Barthelme’s freewheeling play in his piles of language-dreck crystalizes into a stunning moment, some heavy, arresting instance of art not so much shining through as arriving, unexpected and inevitable.
Note: The Gass quotes are drawn from the essay The Leading Edge of the Trash Phenomenon, which is found in his book Fiction and the Figures of Life.