Thursday, July 07, 2005

Answerable to Scott McLemee

As per McLemee

(1) Imagine it’s 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

In the year 2015, an author (me) calling himself "Heroccludes" will publish a book, which will become a runaway bestseller. The book will be titled, Things You Can't Look Up On The Internet. It will be a long catalogue of ideas and information so obscure that not only do searches for it lead to zero hits, but the ideas themselves seem impossible to be described satisfactorily by "keywords."

People are irritated and challenged by the title of the book, and immediately attempt to copy extracts from the book onto their blogs. But an odd thing occurs. As they read each entry in Things You Can't Look Up On The Internet, they find themselves strangely distracted by the text. A good many fall asleep in mid-post. Others feel strange compulsions to snack, take drugs, or watch the latest installment of Dancing With The Stars on the Touchable PlasmaVision screen. Very few posts actually get posted.

Even the information that is actually successfully copied turns out to be rarely, if ever, searchable. The strange syntax of Heroccludes' writing style (one reviewer calls it "psychotic") leads to a remarkable confusion in search terms. Long strings of adverbs and logical qualifiers are required to even approximate the hyper-complex entries for the subjects included in the book. Google decides that posts with information copied from the book are an elaborate form of "Google-Spam," and de-indexes them. The book is filled, in short, not with information that happens to have never been brought to the Internet, but with a kind of information that can never be made available on the Internet.

After the publication of Things You Can't Look Up On the Internet, I will be obsessively looking up the things in the book on the Internet, my local university library, at StarbucksChaseManhattan, anywhere I can get a connection.

Eventually, someone will design a counter search-engine to Google, which contains no information except for the information that is found in the book. As soon as it goes live, the sales of the book plummet.

(2) What is the strangest thing you’ve ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to “Professor X” or “Ms. Y” if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

In graduate school, I went to a talk by a senior scholar in the field of Literary Theory that was so intimidating that it reduced a room full of prominent theorists and ambitious graduate student theory-heads to utter, incomprehending silence. The scholar made a couple of jokes about it during the traumatic five minutes of absolute silence that followed the "Thank you" by which he concluded his talk, but strangely, the microphone seemed to die, and he too was reduced to silence.

In the audience, a couple of people did try to speak -- there are always of course many people in any university English department who generally have no trouble speaking on the slightest of pretexts on topics about which they know nothing. But in this case even they found their mouths had been clamped shut by some kind of incomprehensible power. In anguish, they siezed their mouths, and then apologetically looked at the theorist, pointing ruefully at their hermetically sealed mouths. The speaker walked out of the room in speechless horror, and slowly the audience followed suit, dispersing extremely rapidly.

The silence was catching. Strangely, most who were in attendance found they couldn't speak or write at all for nearly a full day. Everyone invited to the dinner later in the evening stayed home (though no one called to cancel). The theorist, who was not initially personally affected by the silence, returned to his home university, shocked but not evidently physically traumatized.

However, over the following weeks, he himself seemed to catch the virus of silence. He began to cancel lectures, then resigned from his post at the university, and finally vanished outright, leaving his home and family behind without a word. He never wrote anything again, and never published the text of the talk (it was, in fact, lost).

Despite the veil of silence it produced, the event, and the theorist, soon became legendary. Though no one could quite say what the content of the talk was, the physical effect was so overwhelming and so mysterious that serious essays, and then books were written by those in attendance, eagerly attempting to explain it. Some used the methods with which they were already quite practiced -- psychoanalysis, marxism, feminism, and deconstruction -- but most of these were soon forgotten. Someone in a newspaper Op-Ed made a wisecrack about these scholars as members of a "new religious cult that seems to be echoing early Christianity," but that too drew little interest or reaction. In time, the whole thing was forgotten.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

Joyce, Borges, Kafka, G.V. Desani.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don’t seem to be on many people’s radar?

Book Coolie

Other people's answers:
Anthony Paul Smith

Bibliothecary (no permalink -- go to July 5, 2005)

Miriam Burstein

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