Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Luddites Fight for the Right to be Quite Bright while eating Vegemite!

Wow, the whole "controversy" over the word "Luddite" marches on. (For those keeping score, it began here, and the latest comments can be found here and here.) I'd just like to offer a few thoughts on the whole rigamarole.

1. Firstly, for those who might not have AOL access but do have New York Times registration (it's free, yada yada yada), the William Gibson article that got under Sheila's skin can be read here. To sum it up, Gibson wishes that he could set up his computer to "color code" news stories, so that "outright lies" show up in Pistachio, "spin" in Sky-blue, and "misperceptions" in Plum. (Tellingly, he provides no color for what would be "the truth".) His last graf reads thusly:

Some people, I suppose, might complain that it took the fun out of guessing. Luddites!

I think that Gibson was trying to be funny here, as opposed to insulting. Of course, whether or not he is funny is purely a matter of opinion, but the joke probably fails completely if -- like Sheila -- you don't happen to know what "Luddite" means when you see it here. Plus, I can imagine that Sheila wasn't even in the mood to look up the punchline of a joke at all, given that the first graf of Gibson's piece, brief as it may be, is rather amazing in its stilted tone. I mean, this passage is just plain square, and to me it is Gibson screaming out: "Look at how hip I am, and look how I can talk like all the Cool Kids!" It renders the meat of the piece, his color-coding of news coverage, inert. It's as if Gibson is telling a joke that should begin with "A Priest and a Rabbi walk into a bar", and instead starts off with, "In the data-encryption havens off the coast of Connecticut, beyond the invisible line that only exists on maps to demark the limits of one nation's claim on the waters...."

So, we have a piece where Gibson is trying to be "cute", and not really succeeding; and then, to top it off, there's "Luddite" as the very last word. I begin to see how this all happened.

2. One of the commenters on Language Hat's post (link above) on this business issues a breezy dismissal of Sheila, because she was unable to get past Chapter Two of Neuromancer. Well, first of all, judging someone by the books they like is generally dangerous: it's precisely the kind of attitude that Sheila is complaining about in the first place, the "You're not worthy unless you read and admire this". And secondly, I'd have to be in that camp too. I think I tried to read Neuromancer no less than six times in the mid-1990s, when I was concerned with reading what I was supposed to be reading. I never got past the fourth chapter, and quite honestly, with the sole exception of Neal Stephenson I've never been able to finish anything in the cyberpunk subgenre of SF. This does not make me stupid, or "Luddite". It makes me a guy who doesn't like cyberpunk. I'm sorry, but for me, William Gibson's literary legacy consists solely of that great metaphor of his, where the sky is the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel. (Which, on my TV now, is a nice sky blue anyway, which I don't think is what Gibson was getting at.)

3. A lot of the commenters, both at Language Hat and at Sheila's blog, are aghast that Sheila does not profess a singular love of words. This is kind of hard, and I'm not sure I've got a total handle on it, but my reading of all this is that Sheila (and here I go, putting words in the mouth of someone who is eminently capable of doing it herself) values storytelling above all, and sees language as a means to that end. Now, for people who steep themselves in language and words and poetry and metaphor and theme and all those other wonderful things, a person whose primary interest is solely focused on "mere" storytelling seems like an odd entity indeed. Why, they must wonder, would anyone want to just tell stories, and not attend to all the other wonderments of literature? Well, maybe that's a fair question, but even if it is, so what? The idea that literature has to rise above pure storytelling to be worthwhile is pretty obnoxious, especially when it tends to lead to writers who completely abandon storytelling in favor of wordplay. Inadvertently, many of these commenters end up committing precisely the error that Sheila's complaining about in the first place: assuming that "mere story" is just something for the stupid hoi polloi. (Now, I don't necessarily agree with Sheila that "Luddite" is an example of coded language for that attitude, in this particular case, but I am one who has seen the word in play a lot, and yes, it really does get used that way a lot of the time.)

What I think Sheila finds troubling is not so much the idea that one shouldn't write for the masses, but that often "literary" writing exhibits a condescending view of the masses. Again, I'm not sure that's really what Gibson is doing in the piece in question, but I'm also not sure that a lot of the people who are arguing against Sheila are in fact arguing against the point she's actually making.

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