Re: Portraiture as a Site of Many Meetings

The following is excerpted from the Afterword(s) to Portraits and Conversations, my recent collection of fictional essays:

One thing that I find interesting about portraits as a genre of painting is that they are most often considered to be a unique combination of an objective documentation of an individual and the painter’s subjective description of the same individual; another unique attribute of many portraits is that they are assumed to serve as representations of both the physical and psychological characteristics of the individual being portrayed.  The extent to which a specific portrait is interpreted by a viewer to be primarily an objective or subjective description varies depending on a number of factors: the context in which the portrait is presented, the biographies of the artist and sitter, the media selected for the portrait, and the artist’s use of that media.  Whether photographic portraits exist in the same way is open to question since the photograph is usually perceived to have a different relationship to objects and their potentially objective representation than a drawing or painting or verbal description.  Conversations are likewise a unique meeting place of subjective and objective interpretations.  The perspective from which one hears, or overhears, a conversation affects the meanings of the verbal statements in a variety of ways.  “To say nothing of her” is, for instance, an utterance that can be interpreted differently depending on how, why, and in what context it is received.  

About Portraits and Conversations

Why Do You Read Science Fiction?

Johannah Rodgers
February 11, 2017

I read science fiction for reasons that change on an almost daily basis. Initially, and not all that long ago, I started reading science fiction because I quite unexpectedly found myself working on a fiction project related to the genre of science fiction. Before that time (2008?), I did not think that I had ever read science fiction. This was, of course, not true. However, it was what I believed.

I study, write about, and write prose, both fiction and nonfiction, which are part of what we call, generally, literature. Having studied and been educated in the history of Western literature, I tended to draw distinct lines between “literature” and “non-literature” (whatever that is?!). [In the 80s, it was possible to make a distinction between two categories that were related to one another by capitalizing the first letter of one and not capitalizing the first letter of the other. I believe this practice in some way related to Lacan’s work, but I’m not sure.] Anyway, in the past, I made a clear distinction between Literature (capital L) and literature (lower case l). What literature was did not concern me. However, over time, it increasingly interested me, for various reasons, all of which related in some way to this question: why is it that given the choice to read works of Literature would anyone choose to read works of literature instead? I still don’t have a complete answer to this question, but having spent some time and energy investigating it, I have more of an understanding of what is involved in formulating answers to that question.

Here is the very short version of the answer: literature (lower case l) is a living genre; Literature is not. This fact has mostly to do with economics and economies, but it also has to do with educational systems (defined broadly) and nation states. In other words, the reasons behind how and why and which books are studied and what their import is perceived to be. Literature and literature exist in some relation to one another and sometimes overlap. However how and why these two categories meet is dependent on numerous factors. In particular, the medial environment and affordances of a given culture in any one point in time.

My research and writing are increasingly focused on writing as a medium and as media and on thinking about writing as a set of and systems of technologies. It is these interests, along with the fact that I wrote a writing textbook entitled Technology: A Reader for Writers, that have led me to read more science fiction. What I have learned in the process is that I always read science fiction. However, I did not always know that I was reading science fiction.

Like most people, I read science fiction because I enjoy it and I am interested in it, both as a creative writer and as someone who thinks and writes about technologies and societies. However, I also read and study science fiction because I think it is important socially, culturally, and in the context of literary studies generally.

Some Worries: October 3, 2016

Should I say what I really think? If I were a German media theorist, I certainly would do that, but I am not. I am an American writer who wonders often whether there shouldn’t be another way of introducing herself since American seems so incredibly presumptuous and is, in fact, simply wrong. I am a United States-based writer, so I am called an American one because, in English, the United States does not have an adjectival form. It could, of course, but it doesn’t.

In addition to worrying about what adjective to use to describe myself, I also worry about how much is being written and if anyone is reading anything anymore. I, myself, have been tending to read only the first sentence of paragraphs. To some extent, this is how one is taught to read in graduate school, assuming one is not a comparative literature major, in which case, you are taught to read very, very carefully and slowly.  The geographer and Marx scholar David Harvey once said that when he offered his seminar on Marx’s Capital to a group of comparative literature faculty and graduate students at Johns Hopkins they never got past the first page of the introduction. For the whole semester, they just read one page. That anecdote, to me, offers a pretty accurate synopsis of what it means to read as a comparative literature major. Of course, even comparative literature majors cannot read in such a way today, when an estimated “3.4 trillion words, roughly the equivalent to the entire contents of the Library of Congress” are posted globally each day on the web (Clive Thompson, “Write from the Start” (2015)).

As of May, 2015, according to Caitlin Dewey’s calculations at _The Washington Post_, printing out the internet would amount to the same number of pages as 212 million copies of Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_. She does not specify the specific edition of _War and Peace_ that would need to be reproduced 212 million times (there are thousands of editions of the book in print and online). Dewey uses _War and Peace_ to illustrate her point because it is generally considered to be a long book, which it is, particularly the ebook version on my iPhone 4, which comes in at a whopping 8,588 “pages,” i.e. iPhone 4 screens. However, Dewey does cite the importance of Maurice de Kunder’s work to her calculations.  Kunder, though not as well known as Kenny Goldsmith, but who undoubtedly should be, wrote a master’s thesis documenting his development of a tool for dynamically calculating the number of web pages indexed on the World Wide Web. You can still access it at . How many of these are dedicated to the estimated eleven English translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, five of which are currently in the public domain (Bell, Dole, Wiener, Garnett, Maude), I do not know.

In his 1999 article “The Analog Experience of Digital Culture,” Stuart Moulthrop writes that in all writing about digital media, and particularly with writing published in print, “subject and media are radically misaligned. The first is inherently dynamic, the second necessarily static, and no amount of being-digital rhetoric can overcome this disparity.” While I like to think that Moulthrop’s comment can apply to writing about any subject–the real, even in its non-digital forms, is, after all, also a moving target–I must concur that when writing about topics related to the use of digital tools and technologies, we may experience this distance more acutely. I’d like Moulthrop to write more about what the experience of that distance is like. Is it akin to not trusting a writer when s/he writes about a topic that is well known to the reader? Is it akin to reading a document that is simply wrong or out of date, rather like reading a press release for an event that has already taken place?

In the same article, Moulthrop describes a web-based application that, in 1999, collected and tracked search engine activity  (there used to be more than one search engine! … oh, sorry, Bing user! Two search engines!) and enabled the user of the application to read the search terms that were being entered into various search engines in real time. Since this application no longer exists, it is hard to imagine what today’s snap-shot of any one millisecond of search terms being entered into Google might look like. I have to imagine that it would no longer be a “ticker-tape,” as it was in 1999, but more like a giant word-blob/cloud in a constant state of forming and reforming itself.  Of course, if one were to write such an application for today’s search engine(s), one would also get to decide on the shape and form of its output and, with that, shape, or at least influence, the associations and interpretations attached to it.

Textual Circulation and the Production of Common Knowledge (Robert Frost Edition)

As my work takes me ever deeper into thinking about the exchange and circulation of textual information and its currency under different technological regimes, I’ve become interested in looking a bit more at the importance of misquoted texts in the production of common knowledge.  Robert Frost’s oft-(mis)quoted line, “poetry is what gets lost in translation” is just one example of this phenomenon.   What Frost actually said, was, “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” (Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959))  

In a July 14, 2016 Tweet, the translator Michael Cole offers an interpretation of Frost’s line that is in some senses much closer to what Frost said in 1959 than to what we now commonly believe he said.  Cole writes, “Poetry isn’t lost in translation.  Poetry is translation.”  If you have any thoughts to share regarding Cole’s statement and/or the genealogy of the misquoted Frost line, please let me know.  Thanks!

“What Does It Mean To Be Able To Write?”

This question, the title of a 1983 essay by the rhetorician Susan Miller, is one that, as a person who teaches writing and who studies writing practices, I think about a lot.     One of the most interesting things about this question is, of course, the fact that the answer necessarily changes over time.  What it meant “to be able to write” in 1850 is not identical to what it means “to be able to write” in 2016.  As a result, methods of and ideas about teaching writing also change.  The rhetoric surrounding the teaching of writing and how the act of writing is conceptualized also change.  In an ongoing attempt to document some of the changes in the rhetoric surrounding conceptions of writing, I plan to post some current and historical artifacts related to that topic.  Today, I am posting an image of the cover for the 2006 Routledge edition of Pierre Machery’s 1966 book A Theory of Literary Production, the cover for the original English edition of the book published in 1978 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, and the cover of an early French edition of the book.

“Humanist Reflections on Technology,” or Compiling a Common Reading List for Students at a College of Technology

In researching the list of readings to be included in the first edition of my FYW reader/textbook Technology: A Reader for Writers (Oxford, 2014), I came across an interesting document written in 2005 by George Smith, a professor at what was then Brooklyn Polytechnic and what is now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, reporting on his findings from a small , informal survey that he conducted from January to February, 2005, dedicated to gathering responses from faculty members in Philosophy and English Departments across 80 different universities in the United States for their recommended readings–fiction and non-fiction–“that provide a powerful humanist reflection on technology.”  Professor Smith invited respondents to make recommendations in three categories: 1/ works written within the last 500 years, 2/ works written in the last 10 years, and 3/ films.  The results of this survey were fascinating to me for several different reasons: 1/ the overall response rate to the survey (96 of 530); 2/ the specific works recommended in each category; 3/ the apparent lack of consensus regarding recommended works in any category; 4/ the final categorization versus the planned categorization of the responses: after gathering the responses, Professor Smith revised both the first and second categories, deciding to use the date 1980 rather than 1995 as the cut off date distinguishing works in the first category from the second category.  Since I have not yet been able to contact Professor Smith to ask his permission to make the findings from his survey public, I cannot at this time publish the link to his report.  However, I plan to continue my efforts to contact him in order to encourage him to publish the findings from his survey (I don’t know if the results have been published in any form up to this time) and to ask his permission to include the document itself in the next edition of  Technology: A Reader for Writers.  It is a fascinating document both in terms of the works it references as providing “a powerful humanist reflection on technology,” as well as in terms of being an example of a working document dedicated to the design, execution, and reporting of a qualitative survey.

Below are the recommendations that received more than four votes from each of the final 3 categories:

Works from Last 500 Years (to 1980)


Huxley, Aldous./Brave New World/1932 /15

Heidegger, Martin./The Question Concerning Technology/1977/10  [Professor Zeurn’s Reader’s Guide]

Shelley, Mary./Frankenstein/1818/9

Mumford, Lewis./Technics and Civilization/1934/6

Ellul, Jacques./The Technological Society/1954/5

Marx, Leo./The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in


McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man 1962 4

Miller, Walter. A Canticle for Leibowitz 1959 4

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden 1854 4


Works from 1980 to Present


Diamond, Jared./Guns, Germs, and Steel/1997/4

Hayles, N. Katherine./How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,

Literature, and Informatics/1999/4

Kidder, Tracy./The Soul of a New Machine/1981/4

Postman, Neil./Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology/1992/4


Film                                      Date             Votes

Metropolis (Lang, F.)       1927              8

Blade Runner (Scott, R.) 1982              7

Matrix, The                         1999               5

(Wachowski, A. & Wachowski, L.)

Modern Times                   1936                5

(Chaplin, C.)

Gattaca (Niccol, A.)          1997               4

Terminator (Cameron, J.)1984              4

Source: Smith, George. “Responders to Informal Survey Concerning ‘Humanist Reflections on Technology.'” Unpublished Mem0: 28 February, 2005.  Accessed via search engine in 2011.

Today: June 3, 2015

Today, I found several writing instruction books from the 18th and 17th centuries that would indicate that through the 18th c. one was instructed to “write as one speaks.”  John Howell seems to have written a composition book in 1645, which is a book of letters.  He also wrote a book entitled _Dendrologia_, which is a book about trees talking (?) [it is also an early travel book].  I also came across a Charlotte Lennox novel that I had not read entitled _History of the Marquis of Lussan and Isabella_ (1764).  It is written in the first person from the perspective of the Marquis.  There were three collections of letters that I came across: the first the Howell’s, which is entitled Epistolae Ho-Elianae (_Familiar Letters_), which is then quoted in the 1778 _The Complete Letter Writer_, which is organized by subject (business, duty, amusement, love, courtship, marriage, friendship, and other subjects, as opposed to the earlier book, the 1763 _Ladies’ Complete Letter Writer_  which is organized by audience/addressee.

And?  What was the point of today?  Wasn’t I supposed to be working on my “digital materialities” paper in which I explain why I plan to talk about what I want to talk about (writing as a medium) rather than about ANT and the materialities of digital objects?  The day began with the  understanding that “it is all about” ontology and phenomenology.  This is a very academic way of saying the world is about things, i.e., physical objects, and how we perceive them.  Great!  

Tomorrow, I hope to get some writing done.  I’ve been doing too much reading and not enough writing.  Today, I was taken back into my speaking/writing paper, which I still do not have the faintest idea what to do with even though the subject seems to be one that people are interested in and Josiah Zayner, who works at NASA, recently published a paper on the similarities between tweeting and talking.  I found that paper because I became interested in a 1974 paper by James Stalker on writing as a dialect of English.  Materiality, speaking, writing, redundancy, ambiguity, reading practices, publishing practices.  Hmmmm. Where is all of this going?  I don’t know.  I could publish the letters from the ladies letter writing guide book on my fictional site.  I could write some more science fiction informed by the latest in biological technologies.  But, as Joanna Russ wrote many decades ago, “To write about technologies is to ask the wrong questions.” So what am I doing?  What do I have to say?  I also watched an interesting video today about the reconstruction of the first digital computer, the 1939 Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), “the first electronic digital computer built. In this video, we learn how the modules in the ABC operate in parallel and have a modular construction. We’re also given a demonstration of how the ABC works.” (  Oh right!  The day started with “word processing.”  The history of word processing and the Flexowriter, which was a California company acquired(?) by Singer that made paper tape word processors/typewriters.  My ultimate point was that we are writing for an audience of machines as soon as we start using machines to write with.  Machine languages are 100% code.  They are numbers.  

Much Ado About Twitter

June 23, 2015 / January, 16, 2016

In a June 3, 2015 blog post entitled “What Twitter Can Be,” the venture capitalist Chris Sacca who is [full disclosure] also a major shareholder in Twitter, Inc. (TWTR)  raised once again the question that most everyone has been asking since the day Twitter was launched in 2006: “Why?”  Phrased differently, this question has been posed as: “What Is the Purpose of Twitter?”; “What is the Point of Twitter?”; “What Is Twitter For?”; or “Is There Any Conceivable or Practical Reason Why Twitter Should Exist?”  This last version of the question was, more or less, what Mr. Sacca was asking.  For, what those with vested financial interests in Twitter most want to know is whether and how the company will explain and rationalize its financial soundness.  

Twitter is currently valued at roughly $35 ($18) a share, a decrease of almost $40 (or, put another way, a decrease of over 50%) [you do the math] from the stock’s peak price of $74.73, which it reached on December 26, 2013, only a few months after its IPO.  While, even with the current stock doldrums, the company retains a market capitalization of $24 $12 billion, assessed in relation to its peer companies, i.e., Facebook and Google, and its much vaunted growth potential, it probably should be valued a tad higher.  As a result, Mr. Sacca is not the only one beginning to more openly raise the question of just what Twitter might be and/or might be for.

The unique thing about Mr. Sacca’s blog post was not only that it was very long (over 8500 words, including the title and footnote; something he apologized for at the beginning), but also that he actually attempted to answer the question that so many apart from the highly committed–and, according to Wall Street analysts, fewer and fewer–monthly active users (MAU) of Twitter apparently ask when they first encounter Twitter’s invitation to communicate to the globe “What’s Happening?” Namely, “Why bother?”  Mr. Sacca’s “answer” (really more of a list of steps the company needs to take in order to continue appealing to Wall Street investors and one that may or may not have resulted in the June 11 announcement that current Twitter CEO Dick Costelo would be stepping down as of July 1) has received considerable media coverage and several articles, including those in The New York Times, Quartz, and Fortune have not only parsed the blog post into a more concise form, but even attempted to translate it into 140 characters.  Of course, in the end, and as Mr. Sacca writes, it all really comes down to just 5 characters–“$TWTR”.

Explaining at some length and with some “passion” (of the distinct venture capital variety), Mr. Sacca offers multiple reasons why Twitter has the potential to be a valuable and profitable venture.  The only problem?  It may need to do just about everything differently.  Presenting his recommendations in numbered lists, as bullet points, and sometimes even in whole paragraphs, Mr. Sacca includes some that even get very close to adhering to the 140 character limit, i.e., “Twitter can be indispensable, engaging, and fun for everyone on the planet, and make even more money in the process. So why isn’t that happening?

  1. For most people, Twitter is too hard to use.
  2. For most people, Tweeting is scary.
  3. For most people, Twitter feels lonely.”

Using these three points–the first related to Twitter’s persistent and ongoing usability, or ease of use, issues, the second to its problems with its existential likeability (anxiety is a word that appears frequently in relation to this issue), and the third to its evident lack of non-Kierkkegardian sociability attributes–to structure his  recommendations, Mr. Sacca then lands on one consistent answer that emerges as a potential solution to all three:  “Bring on the Hearts!”

While the idea of substituting the graphic symbol ♥–or would it be 💓, or possibly even 💕?–for the, apparently “too strong a word,” “favorite,” which is the term now used to describe how users acknowledge and save certain Tweets, makes users like me [full disclosure: I enjoy reading raw data feeds] shiver with the knowledge that Twitter may very well be eventually turned into some type of cringe-worthy-Facebook-monstrosity, it also raises some interesting things to consider in relation to Twitter’s current strengths and potential.           

For, missing from Mr. Sacca’s extensive list of recommendations for monetizing Twitter and addressing the “real” problem of “how to tell its story” is one that appears to be the most glaringly obvious to many users and cultural critics.  Is not Twitter the realization of the centuries-long search for the perfect poetry generator?  Offering the near real-time distribution of spoken proclamations masquerading as written inscriptions that employ strict formal constraints, i.e., 140 characters, Twitter is, as many have already noted (including, somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Sacca), not only a kind of muse of the internet, but the perfect tool for distributing both doggerel and some very fine verse to a global audience.  Could 140 characters not be a kind of structured meter–dare I say–a “virtual” iambic pentameter for whatever new global human/machine hybrid language may be emerging as the lingua franca of “our” networked planet?  Mr. Sacca, I hate to break it to you, but you may be looking for gold when what you have really invested in is a literary treasure beyond valuation in strict monetary terms.

Some Scandinavian Designers, Retailers, and Fabricators



Illmus bolinghus