St Augustine wrote of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, that “when he read, his eyes were drawn through the pages, while his heart searched for its meaning; however, his voice and tongue were quiet. Often when we were present we saw him reading in this fashion, silently and never otherwise.” For Augustine, this was unusual—that someone would read without vocalising. Only rather recently did it become common for readers to develop an internal voice. In Michael Snow’s 1982 film So Is This (a silent film entirely consisting of white text displayed one word at a time over black) the audience members are asked to read the words for ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, together, and in total silence. Snow describes this as an “optical cranial sing-song”.
In March 2021 I published an essay on my website called On the Internet that was both about the internet and designed to exemplify some essential property of the way we use the internet, in that it employed a kind of non-linear reading. The original essay included almost as much material in its footnotes, designed to be read non-linearly, as in the main body of the text; and two subsequent additional volumes of footnotes (volumes 18-25 and 26-32) were released in later months. These volumes became increasingly detached from the original content of the piece—commentary had disintegrated into a set of expansions and observations of prior expansions and observations.
Michael Snow’s So Is This is a structural film, which is a genre of experimental film which emphasises the form of the cinema itself: drawing the viewer’s attention to camera, film frames, the materiality and spirituality of sitting in a darkened theatre, and the phenomenology of watching. The footnotes to On the Internet were my attempt at something similar for the medium of writing for the internet. When we read via screen, we are given the text in a peculiar block which is shifted relatively up and down on a screen which functions more similarly to a scroll than to a book (hence scrolling), and the density of distraction and hyperlinks and embedded media make the experience a sort of mental cacophony. This experience of reading is almost diametrically opposed to the sort presented by Snow. His viewers sit together, in the silent solidarity of a cinema, and together read the same words to a song they all know with the slow regularity that the linearity of the film’s sequential frames afford them.
The internet sees its readers as alienated cells, bombarded with a salvo of data that unfolds in a tangram deluge. Where images appear in sequence, they do so according to a time that was first unmoored from any communal regularity, then brutally quantised by the modernist fetish for commercial timetables, and then finally contorted into the fractal of an eternal global twilight. Time does not pass, the future does not arrive, and the present is a Frankenstein’s monster of amplified anachronisms. The only way we are now ever likely to experience Snow’s beautiful film is in YouTube uploads, where we will watch the thing in lonely rapture.
Shared reading in the form conceived of by Snow does something miraculous: it contrives a mode of solidarity from the modernist and monomaniacal linear time that makes up the cinema. This should not be possible. In a strangely inverted case, Don Paterson writing in his book of aphorism The Blind Eye contrives a destructive loneliness from the communal reading of poetry:
This, of course, is an artefact of perspective. The only sense in which these two silences are indistinguishable is in the sense most natural to a poet of the 21st century: that in which they perceive themselves as the main character of the universe. To the individualist writer, the indistinguishability of these two silences is itself indistinguishable, qualitatively, from the indistinguishability of the writer’s experience and that of ground truth. Outside of this inert solipsism, these two silences are not just opposites but incomparable and incommensurable psychic states. They are more real to those who feel them than the meat and bone and hair of the poet who has induced them. More real than the the metaphysical operation that allows for meat and bone and hair to induce psychic states in the first place. More real than the cognitive architecture which constitutes that or any other state.
These two silences are not just opposites, but incomparable and incommensurable psychic states, and they are so in the same way that Snow’s linear reading is incomparable and incommensurable with the internet’s tangram deluge of text, image, and meaning. The silence of the unbearably moved and of the terminally bored are essentially the same, but no one who has anything interesting to say is an enthusiastic essentialist any more. Philosophical essentialism is mostly thought of as an epistemic superstition: a dogmatic image of thought which does not capture the spontaneous generation of new epistemic and ontological priorities which characterise real thinking. It is an image that trades intensities for their representations.
The Shining Ice
On the Internet
Indeterminacy - Ninety New Texts