Saturday, December 13, 2008

Google by numbers

I've noticed an interesting trend lately, whereby a writer makes an expository point by way of an offhand reference to the sheer numeric quantities of a Google search.

For instance: Patricia Marx, in a recent article on sale shopping in the poor economy, notes: "If you type 'discount' and 'New York' into Google, you will be presented with 57,944 local business results."

Second case: In the Modern Language Association's 2008 issue of Profession, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in a provocative article about teaching Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to American soldiers, observes: "Modernity generates hearts of darkness with an efficiency, and on a scale, that could only be called modern. Google 'Heart of Darkness' and 'Joseph Conrad' and you get fewer than 400,000 entries; leave off Conrad so that you are looking not for a text but a concept, and you get nearly 2,000,000" (75).

I, too, have resorted to a Google search in my writing. In a piece I am currently working on concerning Wallace Stevens's widely anthologized poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I have been interested in the digital image saturation of blackbird citing in Google Images (1,120,000 hits) compared with Stevens's enigmatic yet economically sparse allusions to this form of avian imagery.

The truth, however, is that practically every Google search yields impressive results in terms of pure 'hits'. What do we learn from Google by numbers? Through Google do we glimpse the sublime aura of the Information Age? Or, seen differently, might Google always be reasserting the inescapability of finitude, even if it lies at the end of a million web pages?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Two TV Shows, Two Notes

A recent New Yorker review of two television shows ("Science Projects") raises two points worth lingering on. This post is perhaps a little strange because I have nothing to say about the actual shows in question, "Fringe" and "The Mentalist." Yet I would like to insist that the blog post is an effective venue for spurs, for the tangential literary critical points that can shoot off a main subject—points that therefore often go undiscussed.

Concerning "Fringe," Kalefa Sanneh describes the "mad scientist" of the show as such: "He is a godless mystic, convinced that every freak phenomenon has a materialist explanation, that there are no coincidences." This sentence is perplexing on several accounts. A "godless mystic" is fairly coherent; we might understand this character as a secular believer in the powers of palpable 'spirit' or traceable energy fields. In a word, this person might be a Hegel of the present moment. But "every freak phenomenon has a materialist explanation"—does Sanneh mean material explanation? Materialism would not exactly leave much room for mysticism; to see the world in terms of material processes would be to suspend the leap to mystical perception—rather, any materialist wonder would be grounded in the realm of the physical (finite but unbounded, as we understand the surface of a sphere). Furthermore, materialism certainly allows for coincidences. The world is wide; two things can coincide without necessarily being causally connected. Thus, I don't see how the godless mystic's materialism refuses coincidental phenomena. The freak in this sentence is the referential vacuity by which the "mad scientist" is (un)known.

Second note: In Sanneh's discussion of "The Mentalist," one of the main characters is defined in terms of her brusque castigations: "At the Palm Springs airport, she learns that a colleague needs to stop by the baggage carrousel, and she is not amused: “You checked luggage? What are you, on vacation?”" This scene description intrigues me for its reliance on what I elsewhere call "the poetics of no-man's land," or the ambiance of the airport baggage claim that becomes a spatial cipher for distinct personae, allowing travelers a reading of their fates in piles of bags. The baggage claim consolidates a number of social tropes, all situated in the indefinite time of waiting for one's belongings, which, as we know, may not arrive in the present moment. (The dialectic of the traveler and baggage handler is far more elliptical than that of Hegel's Master and Slave.) Here, the iconic and aloof vacationer is dropped out-of-context into what Sanneh calls a "quasi-scientific investigative drama." How does the airport come to function as a fortune teller? Recall the opening credit scenes of Mike Nichols's The Graduate: the entire film is anticipated in LAX by a mystical cut from Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock to the baggage carousel. Some coincidences are understood to be plainly material and proleptically visionary, at once.