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cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

The World Needs More Critical Terms

Posted by John Holbo on 11/05/06 at 11:35 PM

I just finished the 2nd season of Lost, which I enjoyed, which has inspired me to encourage the general use of a critical term I coined ... at some point: infoclench (or infolock). All SF fans are familiar with ’infodump‘ - that is, “a large (often unwieldy or indigestible) amount of information supplied all at once; spec. as background or descriptive information in a narrative.” My definition of ‘infoclench’: a large (often wieldy and digestible) amount of information that is not provided at any time, by some characters to the others, lest the background become too clear, or the narrative advance too sensibly.’ Lost is one of the great exercises in sustained infoclench in the history of World Literature. That island is a continent of hyper-continence when it comes to no one telling anyone anything about anything (and that’s why they keep getting shot.) Meta-narratively, this is obligatory: in order to preserve the mystery and strangeness of the situation, also (even especially) the individual head-spaces of the various characters, with their private flashbacks, there can never be a moment when the characters sensibly pool their information and attempt to reason to some consensus about the likely range of explanations for what is going on. (It’s like anti-Habermas Island. The least ideal speech situation.) The most basic meta reason for it this is: you can’t just have the characters all sitting on the beach for hours, worrying about their fate and sounding exactly like contributors to some online discussion board devoted to what’s going to happen on Lost. ‘No, dude, either you are explaining about the polar bear or you are explaining about the heroin plane from Nigeria. You can’t be explaining both.’ (Then, again, that would be pretty funny. Maybe they should do that.)

That would amount to ‘making frame’. We all know what ‘breaking frame’ is. A character steps out of character and/or genre and comments on the action. ‘Making frame’ is what happens when the artificiality of genre constraints become so severe that it becomes obtrusively psychologically unnatural for the characters not to notice that they are inhabiting genre fiction. Example: the fact that it never occurs to Scully that Mulder has always been right before - there are vampires and aliens and killer this-and-thats. Why should he be wrong this time? ‘Making frame’ is Scully overlooking the fact that Mulder is always right, so - being rational - she should drop the skepticism schtick as a bad bet. The laws governing genre cannot be laws of the world the characters live in, i.e. they cannot be the sorts of things the characters could discover by reasoning about their world. But it is absurd to suppose that characters don’t notice what is going on. This is why shows like Buffy have more hardiness in the long run by having more silliness in the short run. They allow steady, ironic venting of this sort of pressure so it doesn’t become annoying. (And the occasional full-steam release. Lost has gone that way as well.)


You young people and your fucking TV.

By John Emerson on 11/06/06 at 08:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Infoclench” it is then.  Though I must say, I preferred “infopation”.

By Adam Roberts on 11/06/06 at 08:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I worry that if I allow too many variations I will cease to have critical control, Adam. And I might not be able to collect the royalties. (But your point is well taken, Emerson.)

By John Holbo on 11/06/06 at 09:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting post. And you haven’t even seen the opening of the third season… I have always thought of ‘Lost’ as the perfect example of the digressions, partial revelations etc Barthes’s S/Z places under the heading of the hermeneutic code. As I guess your ‘infolock’ might.

By on 11/06/06 at 09:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting.  I don’t watch Lost because it looks stupid; but if it were called Anti-Habermas Island you couldn’t tear me away.

By Dave Maier on 11/06/06 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes I think, Lost is pink, because presents the pinkiness in the players. Because is Internet, maybe the correct term is pink-HTML-less. And it is similar to the pink panter because is more Adorno with the Ideology.

By on 11/06/06 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Incidentally, if we’re in the business of pushing for new critical terms, I’d like to throw my weight behind this one.  From 1811 no less.  I’m sure there’s some textual twist or speciality to which it can be applied.

By Adam Roberts on 11/06/06 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why don’t you enter that in the “Words of Wonder” thread, Adam?

By Bill Benzon on 11/06/06 at 09:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I could do that, Bill, yes.  I just thought that there was something distinctly jerrycummumble about Lost.

By Adam Roberts on 11/07/06 at 04:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You see, Adam, it’s something of a miracle, a reply that’s apt for two threads at once.

Though, I suspect that Harold Bloom would object to “jerrycummumble” as a critical term, not sufficiently obscure and Greekoid. But then, the list of terms Bloom’s proposed is a rather jerrycummumble lot, isn’t it?

By Bill Benzon on 11/07/06 at 05:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John -

If this isn’t a massively trivial thing to be talking about on the night the Dems are poised to finally place a legislative check on George II…

...what did you like about Season Two of Lost? I mean, I know you like a number of things I consider awful wastes of time - Silver Age comics for instance - but critics and fans seem to be coming around to an overall negative view of the direction the show’s been taking basically since Boone died. So what’s the good stuff?

Perhaps you’re mapping a likely favourable reaction to the finale - which was exciting - onto your feelings about the season entire? That’s the only explanation I can think of, because at least 80% of last year was pointless psychology-free drivel, unquestionably the worst and laziest writing a serial drama could get away with and still be called by some people a good show.

My (Holbonically long) case for the prosecution is here, if you’re bored and feel like perusing a heartbreaking work of staggering bitchery. :)

Plus gotta say: ‘Normal Again’ was stunning when it first aired and admirable upon reflection, because it presented a totally plausible reading of the show that was immediately put aside, rather than being left to dangle before the audience in the absence of compelling emotional reality. Unlike the writers of e.g. Lost the Buffy staff constructed a lived-in social texture rich enough to make the work of multiple interpretation worthwhile; no matter how generously you read the Lost narrative it’s still a shallow half-allegory with no human core. At least with Whedon’s work you could always watch it as Dawson’s Creek with fangs; no such version of Lost is possible. The show is nothing more than its narrative pretense, never has been. Hell, they didn’t even have character bibles until the series had been on for a long while.

Different animals entirely.

By waxbanks on 11/08/06 at 03:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, waxbanks. Now that the Dems have it all sewn up, I can reply with equanimity.

Interesting long post. I’ll actually give it more of a careful read later. First, let me clarify one aspect of the post: I used the adjective ‘great’ in fairly close proximity with ‘world literature’, which might make me sound more profoundly impressed than I am - which is more like: consistently entertained. (But at the end of the day it’s rather light stuff. But I like it.)

While watching it the wife and I decided that watching it in 1 hour packets would have been kinda annoyingly slight because of the whole ‘nothing happening’ infoclench thing. But we generally consumed it 3 episodes at a sitting and that proved more stick-to-our-ribs.

I haven’t read anything much about the show, although I guess I’ve heard little snips about how the writers don’t have any idea where the hell it’s going. That could be a REAL problem come, oh, say, season 3. If this shaggy dog never comes to some coherent, satisfying conclusion they’ve really screwed the pooch. I’m pretty much going for: their best bet is a Stanislaw Lem style “The Investigation” there-is-no-reason-why-it-happened ending. But obviously you need to do that very carefully. So I hope they are curled up with copies of several Lem novels, with post-it’s stuck in at suitable points. It’s a bit sleazy if they’ve just been clueless the whole time (but maybe they could make a meta-episode, come season 5, about all the traumas the writers have gone through - lost, unsure what is going to happen on their island, but enjoying their windfalls of cash and worrying whether they will be punished for their good fortune, like Hurley. There could be lots of flashbacks to the earlier seasons, with anxious commentary form the writers about how they don’t know WHY that scene was there.)

Your point is well taken about the characters being sort of one-note in their private drives to resolve Whatever One Issue This Character Has (WOITCH). WOITCH wears thin after a while. What has kept me amused is sort of a sense of a wry-ironic stance toward that problem. The whole thing is like a video game (I don’t even like video games, mind you, I’m a comics man) and so the one-note characters feel funny to me, rather than annoying. But, admittedly, that could change. No, not like a video game. Like a puppet show? I dunno. Something subtly two-dimensional, but not unsatisfyingly so.

Maybe me seeing this limitation as a potential feature rather than a bug is just me giving the writers too much credit, or else being just too slack in my critical standards. I like the fact that the characters don’t quite feel real. It makes it more dream-like.

I’ll think more about it. Good post.

By John Holbo on 11/08/06 at 09:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The question should be asked, “Why do people like Lost?” Not “Why is Lost is good or is it Good?”

People like Lost because they feel trapped, life generally sucks, and people feel like there are people living hidden controlling their lives without asking their permission. 

Those flashbacks are right from Steven King flashbacks and Erskine Caldwell short novels, total melodrama. 

If a writer presses certain existential buttons people will react positively: it doesn’t matter if they are trapped on an island, sharecroppers in the south, or getting attackd by a devil in the Nevada desert.  People react positively to characters being trapped with an invisible force ruining their lives.

By noah cicero on 11/08/06 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I always like Noah’s analysis.  This one feels exactly right.

By on 11/08/06 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

With Lem, above, and Flann O’Brien, Bierce, and Bioy-Casares, people are bringing more to Lost than is there, strictly speaking, but this always happens. I’m also convinced that there is no master plot or guiding direction beyond the next two episodes, but I keep watching it all the same.

John wrote perhaps the definitive bit of ludological theory on the pre-typepad John&Belle, which you should encourage him to repost.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/08/06 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What bit of ludology was that, Jonathan? That ‘day late, a dwarf short’ thing? That has a certain relavance to this problem. No sense of an ending.

As we were saying ...

How to Fix Shows Like Lost - from NY Mag

“The few devoted fans of new series like Vanished and Kidnapped might grumble as these shows get yanked, but they should take solace: It could have been worse. Kidnapped could have become a Lost-size hit and been extended indefinitely. That’s the real irony this season: not that these convoluted, Lost-alike shows aren’t succeeding, but that the model they aspire to doesn’t work at all. Sure, Lost drew massive audiences in its first two years, but in its third season, it’s losing both viewers (down a third from last year) and narrative steam (who’s in the hatch with the Others and the numbers and the—oh, forget it). And for anyone who didn’t sign on from the beginning, there’s little incentive to catch up now. Why invest hours wading through past DVDs when your co-workers are grousing that the mysteries still haven’t paid off?
There is, however, a simple solution: Change the format, or at least reimagine it. When it so-called arc shows, we need something between a mini-series and an open-ended run. We need the TV equivalent of a novella: the limited-run show. Series driven by a central mystery (Twin Peaks, The X-Files) peter out precisely because they have indefinite life spans ...”

I guess you’ve got to know when it’s time to kill the golden goose.

By John Holbo on 11/13/06 at 03:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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