One of the cool things about being on the conservative side of life having previously been on the progressive side, is that I have developed senses for the narratives that are supposed to appeal to me as the Peasant I am. Which is to say that since I get propaganda from MoveOn.org as well as RedState.com I'm familiar with the diatribes.
Just a bit ago I tripped by the names of Barthes and Levi-Strauss. By way of my now fully developed conservative spidey senses, I know that I'm supposed to be wary of such French intellectuals and all of their mumbo jumbo, especially Barthes who is one of those guys who talks about coded speech, which is something Progressives like to say we conservatives do when we open our mouths. Be that as it may, there is something I think I like about Structuralism, being a programmer and all.
The last book I finished was a re-read of 'The Diamond Age', and as much as folks like CD hate that I prefer to get my moral instruction from literate fiction instead of social science white papers, I remain addicted to excellent prose and imagination. Which I think rather disqualifies great swaths of post-modern mumbo jumbo and academic publications. I suppose if I could bother to get on with Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments then I might be immune to any tedium. My point however is that one of the striking premises of 'The Diamond Age' is that there is a book that adjusts itself to the young reader and immerses them in a set of instructional and interactive videogames of her own life and education. It is a book to be read over a series of many years. Its adaptation by 50,000 girls known as the Mouse Army fuels a righteous insurrection that begins the overthrow of a corrupt regime.
The interesting thing to me, of course, is the book itself as a mutable lesson, a sort of sandbox RPG of the self full of moral tales and intellectual & moral puzzles. That is not so much the actual story of The Young Lady's Primer, but it's close enough. Barthes for his part in this intrigue is the popularizer of a Russian by the name of Vladimir Propp who authored a book called Morphology of the Folktale. This book is like a Dewey Decimal system of fairy tales, wives tales and all other sorts of basic lit.
There's a joke about a group of comedians who are close friends who know all the jokes being told in the country. Since it's bad form to tell somebody else's joke, this is something they must know. When they get together, all they have to do is tell the punchline and they laugh it up. After a while they come up with a numbering system and all they then have to do is speak the number to illicit guffaws. After a couple years of this, they start to sound like accountants. "42!", Hahaha!. "607!" Heeheee.
Propp is the expert in this field of identifying the skeletal structures of folktales / narratives and categorizing them by type. Wouldn't it be cool to have all of the world's folktales translated into all of the popular languages? With these frameworks, you essentially have a narrative creation machine. It only takes a little imagination to see that there are endless variations on various themes that can be used for just about any purpose. The human mind wants to hear stories. Propp shows the universal framework upon which all such successful stories work their magic.
Having just finished Vernor Vinge's 'Rainbows End'. I find some of that a bit obscured by the number of characters he uses. Of course I listened to the book rather than read it, and it seemed to go on a bit overlong. The extent to which the intrigue went was not quite deep enough for my fandom, but was nicely blended with a broad cast. There were enough real people in the book to give the events adequate dramatic investment and there was a fair share of twisty stuff, nicely playing on the old crypto-terms of Bob, Alice and the Rabbit.
But the main event of the book, and a constant theme, was the extent to which seemingly spontaneous events might garner global audiences and the monetization of same based upon an adhoc virtual marketplace of labor and consumption was a bit too much. One could think about 'Rainbows End' and 'The Diamond Age' as two ends of a spectrum of market speed and assimilation. In Vinge's world, propriety is reduced to almost nothingness in the events of ordinary people. They live in a cyber-reality-based contest world where people make commercials based on creative tweaks of prior aired commercials. It's a world of long-tail aggregation in the extreme, where competing worldviews don't really exist except as matters of avatar style.
In Vinge's world, the poet is an outcast, isolated and thus seeks the comfort of isolation. Power extends only from military necessity, and entertainment market share. The subversion of network security is the great crime. But surely Vinge didn't mean to describe the whole world in the ways that Stephenson does, consequently his characters are a bit more resilient. It's a good enough story of character in a strange new world.
The point of bringing in Vinge is to consider whether or not it will matter that variations of the enumerated themes of folklore will be human generated or not. The prospect of literary Singularity exists if the voice of the author becomes subjugated to the sweep of the plot within the context of the finite world of the morphologically proper tale. That's where the rubber meets the road. If the author ceases to matter, and all we do is come up with more interesting avatars who do more dramatic things or 'creative' things in the context of the narrative, then that's when we lose. It won't matter if books are virtual or real if that happens. Just like it doesn't matter if we read Harry Potter or watch the Harry Potter film - so long as Rowling disappears.
So what's necessary is the human bit of wrangling over the context of creation. A successful critical thread is the thing that humanizes literary production. What astonishes us is the wisdom of the creator, his grasp of not just morphology but the human condition, and that is gotten through understanding the context of his will to create. This will always differentiate those who write in service to the individual from those in service to the mass market.