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On Neotericity

I feel I should offer some words of explanation. No, that’s wrong.

I believe I should offer some words of explanation.


Some of you out there have (however well meaningly and lightheartedly) observed that my use of ‘neoteric‘ positions my writing as deliberately highfalutin’, or just plain obscure, and I want to briefly, although seriously, address that.

I have a problem with a great deal of modern literature, and especially work produced in new media. Geoff Ryman summed up his particular issues with new media literature and a culture of Classicism in general, in his keynote speech at Incubation in 1999. Go and read it because it’s good, and interesting and well thought ought. Or don’t, and trust me that the section I want to draw your attention to is that modern culture produces work that behaves like a McDonald’s happy meal:

Fiction as a McDonald’s.

* it aims to be inoffensive, removing faults
* it never defeats (or exceeds) expectation
* it aims at being popular, is a function of commercialism
* sometimes at the expensive of flavour
* and so has to manage disappointment
* because it never satisfies, the audience comes back for more
* it is formulaic and oriented towards the past

If you get under the skin of that, you’ve got a handle on my thinking about Dan Brown specifically, and the book industry and the stock market in general. And especially, why I admire the books and films and art that I do. Anyway, back to new media.

The great remediation experiment of 1989-2007 (wherein the majority of work produced in new media could be summed up as “well, we took that, because it worked well as a film/book/comics and put it on the web, and aren’t we clever, and isn’t it wonderful” – see example here) is a failure. There’s a section in the paper I’m writing this week that deconstructs exactly why that’s a failure, and while I’m not going to subject you to the full text, here’s a summary:

“this exposes a flaw in the logic of remediative strategies in new media. By desiring, as they express it “to borrow avidly from each other as well as from their analog predecessors such as film, television and photography” remediated new media content exposes itself to the risk of repeating the problems encountered by each predecessor. Certainly, new media cannot operate in cultural isolation from other media forms, but by embracing this strategy, its potential is curtailed, and in doing so, any opportunity to genuinely develop interactive form is strangled at birth.”

So, my problem is that most work produced in new media is lazy, unimaginative, and devoid of genuine consideration for the form in which it’s going to be seen. And I spent 80,000 words trying to get the bottom of why that was, and what could be done about it.

Along the way, I realised that I needed a word that expressed what I was trying to say, that summed up my position in a simple manner. I needed something new.

And the universe gave me neoteric.

I didn’t find it by myself, it was tucked away in a student’s essay and it sat there, waiting to be found, like a little gemstone. Neoteric. As Simon rightly points out, just another way of saying new or modern, but more than that, it was a prompt.

Let me explain.

I read Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” when I was a kid, and the most wonderful thing about Wolfe’s writing to the 13 year old me was that he forced me to learn, to slow down and check what I was reading. Whether that was his use of language, or in that he threw words I’d never heard into the mix and sent me to a dictionary, he made me read differently. That’s the reason I prefer John Clute as a critic to almost anyone else out there (and why I took issue with Warren Ellis’ dislike for complicated writing a few weeks ago), and it’s precisely why I used neoteric in my thesis.

It stopped each of my examiners in their tracks and made them think about what I was trying to say. I want writers in new media to stop too. To think about the form, about the grammar, and the content of new media, and try to do something new, something native to this medium, and not fall back on the remediation stratagem.

If that makes me unnecessarily highfalutin’, then I apologise. But I’m not going to change.



3 comments for “On Neotericity”

  1. The problem with most arguments against complexity is that they assume that meaning is simple, independent of the text and digestible at a glance (hence the Happy Meal reference).

    But the complex language isn’t actually complex, just distant. The principles, rules and sentence structure of complex language aren’t actually more intricate than that of most popular language, they are just less familiar and require us to disassemble them before we reach any sort of understanding.

    Because popular language is so familiar to us, we gloss over some of the complexities.

    As any student of Bakhtin would know, distance in language and between the various language styles is an important tool in exposing meaning and structure as speech.

    The fact that there are class and economic indicators attached to the various styles of writing just makes them more useful as writing tools, they become linguistic images that bring a snapshot of society into the very structure of the text.

    Or I may just be hungry. Haven’t had breakfast today. :)

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | July 31, 2007, 12:48 pm
  2. Clarification:
    “The problem with most arguments against complexity is that they assume that meaning is simple, independent of the text and digestible at a glance (hence the Happy Meal reference).”

    What I mean: The assumption of those who criticise complex writing is that it is the writing that obscures the meaning and that meaning is never in itself complex and hard to understand

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | July 31, 2007, 12:52 pm
  3. Precisely. And it’s the glossing over that I had a problem with before my moment of neoteric recognition. I wanted readers to (exactly as Simon and Hol did, I think) stop and check again before assuming what I was saying. The continued joy of reading a Clute review is that the meaning isn’t usually terribly obscure, and part of the pleasure of reading is decoding that meaning through language, rather than having it served up on a plate.

    I offer the opening sentences of his review of Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”:

    “There is no point in writing an alternate history unless you meant to do that. Maybe the ultimate failure of Philip Roth’s otherwise brilliant ‘The Plot Against America’ is that, in the end, it doesn’t really mean to be alternate, except for an initiating conceit. But the unexamined alternate history is not worth living. A genuine alternate world/alternate history must be an argument about the case of things, or why bother?

    An alternate history is a sentence on the world.”

    Which isn’t horribly obscure, or a maltreatment of language, as Ellis would have his devotees believe, it’s instead an attempt to draw a bigger picture about the book in question, to add to it, rather than simply comment on it.

    Posted by tom | July 31, 2007, 1:28 pm

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