System Poetics: Genres, Autofiction, Theory fiction


Years ago when I was a filmmaker I would say to my partner that if we wanted to make narrative/fiction films (as opposed to documentaries) we should make genre films. In some ways I thought it would be easier to make a film within these constraints and that it would be easier to find an audience.

By genre I mean something like a western, a rom com, a horror movie. It is a hylomorphic story, where there is a clear distinction between the structure and content. Even “high concept” hollywood films – like searching for bobby fisher meets best in show, is hylomorphic. I am describing the bones of the film with out fleshing out the content. Genre films make it particularly easy to do this.

This is what Quentin Tarantino – he transforms genre films. You think you are watching a western, but the form and content are interdependent and the the form definitely does not follow the logic of the genre you thought you were watching.

My collaborator and I ended up not doing a genre film, but something super weird – probably because we did not think in genre formats and our desires and interests are to porous (read the previous post on boundaries).

But is a genre a system? Is narrative a system – like Aristotelean drama? I was telling my shrink a dream last week, and he said to me that Jung said dreams follow a 3 or 4 point story arc – similar to the idea of Aristotlean drama. That is a particular system.

Operas and plays that end in a marriage are comedies in death a tragedy. What about Beckett and Waiting for Godot. Is this a new genre? Is this transgenre? What is the system that this play is part of?

When I read Hanzi Freinacht The Listening Society, I was aware I was reading a hybrid work. This is not a traditional philosophical text or even social science text. Other hybrid works include autofiction like Crudo – which I love. Auto fiction is autobiographical fiction. I don’t believe this is a genre, unlike say magical realism which I do believe is a genre. There are tools to auto fiction, tropes and tactics. But it is like each author is playing a different chess game, using the same moves in different patterns.

Autofiction is about expressing the ineffable subjective inner life or experience of the author. This is not as a metaphor (which would be a story), or entertainment (also a story). It is meant as a cultural object in so far as a particular experience if it has enough resonance with enough individuals represents a universal experience, not through the creation of a universal experience that everyone can find expression within.

The question is what systems, or rather what system poetics do I use to express a subjective inner life that another person can understand and connect with?

This brings me to theory fiction. This is another genre or is it. The highpoint of theory fiction for me is Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism. The most famous is probably Reza’s Cyclonopedia.
The most recent one I have read is Spinal Catastrophism, which I had on my last trip to Atlanta and thus it has accompanied me into quarantine.

So if autofiction is cross system attempt to express a story as a subjective experience, theory fiction is to express an idea (or ideas) as a narrative experience or in some cases subjective experience. How do we communicate thoughts? Where do thoughts come from? How do thoughts grow? Why do I want to hear your thoughts? Stories should not have philosophical bones to pick, when they do they are theory fiction.

Is this space between genres or hybrid genres the space of system poetics?
If we think about Hanzi again, and use his language of system, meta-system (maybe), paradigm, meta-paradigm, what do these fall?
The system would be the genre, either philosophical or narrative. It has a set of set rules, values, and aims.

Meta-systems would be auto fiction, or theory fiction. The goals and rules are myriad depending on the reader or the part of the text. The structure is combined from different systems.

On the paradigm level the rules across all modes of storytelling, argument, communication, exposition, creation, dissemination are teased out. I want to stick the realm of writing instead of devolving in to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, or some sort of narrative singularity where all creation is the same. But perhaps it would be something like Dale Pendell’s 3 volume set on plants that mixes science, biology, programming, history, poetry, lists, memories.

A meta-paradigmatic writing. What would it be like cross over multiple Dale Pendell-like books. Each would be different, and paradigmatic in their own way. Maybe writing that proceeds like a mind virus – writing that is performative – writing that while not transcending its format causes the reader to transcend. But this is just one option for a meta-paradigmatic. And then I might have gotten all these previous Hanzi analyasis incorrect.

But back to theory fiction – I see it now. I have xray vision in to a story. Like hearing the first bar of a song and knowing the name, I can watch a film or read a story and understand where it is going and what the plot it. It no longer unfolds in time but in one moment of illumination. And this is what it feels like to watch a genre film or story, to read a well made play (ibsen), and now theory fiction.

Theory fiction is way more fun than reading traditional theory like The Critique of Pure Reason, although I do find my mind clearer after puzzling for 2 hours over Hegel. But maybe this is a way to improve theory fiction, or maybe theory fiction is trying to do something different.

But as the apprehension of a work happens in an instance, rather than over time, we will search for higher and higher levels of system poetics where we too can experience the unfolding of the work in time.

Capitalism’s Problem with Boundaries


These days it is common to talk about boundaries, not just national boundaries, but personal boundaries.  Our traditional categories are changing: public/private, family, work/play, gender.  Some of these are aided by technology, such as social media creating a more porous boundary between the public and private sphere, or even hormone treatment for gender. But some are emergent from our cultural and economic milieu, such as the changing nature of the family which is related to increasing wage earning capacities and legal recognition of different types of unions. 

Our categories are changing, and this was where our traditional boundaries stood. We did not have to think about them. Now that our categories are changing we are constantly talking about boundaries.  We ask, am I crossing the line? What sorts of stories and details can I share with my friends, with my family, with my colleagues?

John Bellamy Foster, in his excellent Capitalism and Robbery article, paraphrases Marx when he says that in capitalism all boundaries become barriers to overcome. This is another way to think about boundaries and where our anxiety around boundaries come from. It is not only that our categories change, but for capitalism, categories are only there to be transformed by the engine of capital into the Money-Commodity-Circuit.

One of the reasons we have an issue with boundaries in the public and private sphere is because of social media. Social media, as powered by capital, reduces all social connections such as family connections and work connections to a commodity. When all relations are commoditized, they no longer exist in the category public/private but only in the category commodity.  The boundary is between what is inside the machine of capital and what is outside the machine.

John Bellamy Foster is not talking about people creating personal boundaries, however. He is talking about physical boundaries and the encroachment of capital across physical boundaries. It is about the boundaries of the earth. The traditional story that Marx tells is that capital did not arise because people just saved a lot of money and invested it well. Instead there was a process of primitive accumulation, such as taking communal lands, plundering gold from the americas.  This is where the original capital for capitalism comes from. 

What are the boundary conditions of the earth? How were they breached? Foster distinguishes 3 moments: industrialization of agriculture, empire, and the anthropocene.  Although there are many ways to read these moments I see them as distinguished the relationship between different human beings (bios) to capital. 

Industrialization of agriculture excludes people from the ability to sustain themselves. It excludes those from outside capital or marginal within capital, such as indigenous populations and workers. In empire, those marginalized our externalized people essentially become slaves. In the anthropocene, those slaves become statical populations excluded no longer necessary in the global supply chain and excluded from the network of capital. 

We can also interpret these three moments as three moments of violence.  The first moment as the destruction of indigenous cultures and replaced with a commodified capitalist culture – epitomized by the death of many indigenous peoples. The second moment as a destruction of geographies when methods of cultivation in one ecosystem are exported to another – epitomized by the dust bowl. The third moment, as the destruction of biomes, where mechanized production feed one population by depleting a biome – epitomized by the overfishing.

There are a few movements to notice. One is the movement from the individual to the population, which is the statisticalization of human beings. The other is the change of scale from property, to geography, to biome. Another is the method of accumulation, via theft or plunder, via access and networks, and via mechanization. The gun that allowed nations to steal gold from the americas, is different from the train that allowed farmer to export unsustainable farming practices to Oklahoma, are different again from the trawler that digs the ocean floor grabbing both fish and destroying the ecosystem at the same time.

But, at its core, this discussion is about boundaries. It is about the boundaries between us and the land and between different conceptions of land itself. Is land a place where my family lives?  Is land a place that is accessible, land only exists if I can get there? Does land not exist, it is only what I extract from it? Who has extracted oil from the ground seen the land where this oil comes from, the deep earth. Is there a difference between the land I live on and the land the deer lives on? What is that boundary?

Also what should I do to the land? To the land I see, to the land I dont see, to the land I use, and to the land that others use but I also do not see?

I am not even sure if we should talk about boundaries. Boundaries are perhaps an antiquated notion and maybe let’s get rid of all boundaries.  The boundaries between land and ourselves are already porous – this is not an accident of capital but of nature. Rather in this instance it is capital that has constructed the boundaries. 

What does meditation do for us?


Someone recently told me to think about what I am a tool for?

I have not answered the question. But it has made me think about what people do for one another and what things or practices we do for ourselves. Everything does something for us, and we have a reason for everything we do (even it is a bad reason, like habit).

I was participating in a vipassana meditation with a group of thinkers. Afterward we talked about what we felt etc, and one of the thinkers said that he could not help but have ideas during the meditation….

This made me think about the purpose of meditation – what does meditation do?

People in my group were talking about thinking more clearly ore removing cognitive bias. These are all great and I agree with them.

But is knowledge, is thinking, the that the only way to understand something?

An example I hear again and again is that of plants and plant lore. Ancient peoples did not engage in the scientific method in order to decide which plants cured which diseases.  So, how did they discover these properties?

I have no idea. Some people say the plants themselves spoke. What is important here is that there are ways to understanding beyond our normal cognitive mode of apprehension. How do we get there?  

My feeling is through meditation. Meditation lets us access other methods of understanding, methods that are subjective and private not public like science. These modes of understanding perhaps cannot be codified as knowledge in our society, or at least scientific knowledge. Since they are subjective they cannot be falsified. But if these subjective experiences provide other ways towards rich human experience why should they be denied.

I recently finished the listening society by hanzi freinacht, which outlines many different ways that inner life matters, how meditation contributes to the cultivation of inner life, and how this interacts with what we would call scientific knowledge. This is multilayered and I could talk about it in another post. 

But for now – is thinking the only path towards knowing? And if there are many paths what are they?