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Dialogue Two: What is Momentitiousness
MMTN: We have reconvened with Jason Leclerc, the author of Momentitiousness, to continue our fascinating discussion about his book.
JL: It’s good to be back. Thanks.
MMTN: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask the simplest author question of all: Can you summarize your book in one to three sentences? Something tells me no.
JL: That is a challenge, especially when you consider that this is very clearly not a novel. I’ve already made it clear that it is not driven by traditional narrative, so that leaves me with three sentences about form. The book is not driven by narrative, it is driven by form; it flies in the face of traditional narrative in favor of form. Depending upon the way you approach the book–the order in which you read or omit the moments–it can be a grand narrative about first loves, anger and revenge, cutting edge scientific discovery, or a zombie war.
MMTN: These stories, of zombie war for instance, talk about “Semiotic Arbitrage?”
JL: No, they, taken in these groupings, use “Semiotic Arbitrage.”
MMTN: So, we have established where you’re coming from on an intellectual level? You’ve unpacked the term “Semiotic Arbitrage” for us, and I think it’s much more approachable than it was at first blush. How does this theory manifest itself in your book?
JL: You might imagine that you are reading the same story thirty times.
MMTN: Well, I’m not sure I get that. Surely, there are a few stories, like Obtuse, Acute, and Equilateral for example, that make that obvious. But how can we say that Juans is related to, say, Flag?
JL: Ah! The triangle stories. These are the most obvious example of our threes. I use these stories to lay it all out. They are, to use trigonometric terminology, a proof.
MMTN: If a reader doesn’t connect with trigonometry, can they still get it?
JL: God, yes. I never really considered this, but you raise an interesting point. Perhaps this can also be a “Math for dummies.”
MMTN: And also “Physics for dummies” and “Economics for dummies.”
JL: And, well, “Sex for dummies.”
MMTN: You are not shy about sex. Sometimes very explicit sex.
JL: I got in some trouble with the publisher on a couple of stories. “Too explicit,” they said.
MMTN: You had to re-write a couple of stories.
JL: Yes, I did. It was frustrating because I saw nothing wrong with them. Readers will understand that Bloom and Obtuse are truth-seeking, even if they do get a little raw.
MMTN: Before we talk about some of the particular stories, I want to challenge you on your statement that they are “the same story” from multiple perspectives.
JL: Maybe I should have been more specific. They “could be” the same moment thirty times told.
MMTN: Yes, but clearly some stories happen way in the past while others are way in the future. In totally different cities and with completely different characters.
JL: So, you are approaching the metanarrative from a linear perspective. You are trapped by the conventions of the novel and the cinema.
MMTN: With respect, Faulkner used shifting perspectives a century ago. Movies like Crash play with time and irony. They are nonlinear.
JL: Well, they are told non-linearly. They are linear stories that are clipped up and re-told in such a way that the story itself is narrated for effect. What I do is different. I imagine that, because of wrinkles in time-space, non-linear moments can occur simultaneously.
MMTN: So is this about perspective or is it about actual simultaneity?
JL: It could be both, because I play with the narrative voice as well. I almost want to believe that the same narrator exists throughout, shifting shape and dropping into moments.
MMTN: Sounds like Quantum Leap.
JL: In a way, yes.
MMTN: But in some stories, the narrator is first person. In others, omniscient.
JL: This narrator is a devious sucker. One of the things I like about this narrator is that we never know when to trust.
MMTN: You talk as though you’re not sure. Just to be certain, the narrator is not you, right?
JL: God no. The narrator is just a story teller.
MMTN: One of the things I had a hard time with was how some of the very disparate characters fell into the same, almost poetic, didacticism. If you expect us to believe that there is a singular narrator, that makes more sense.
JL: “Poetic didacticism.” I don’t know if I like that or not.
MMTN: I don’t know if readers do either. Although, I have to admit that it is easy to get sucked in by that poetic voice…especially as it ducks in and out of the form of the characters in the stories. For example, here’s a line from that story we’ve mentioned a couple times, Obtuse. Would you mind reading this part for me?
Though I wanted him in the most primal way, I wanted him more absolutely and completely into an eternity that spread unconstrained into the future and into even that future’s future. And, from that contrived imaginary future, I looked back again to the moment as the genesis that must have banged forth from this special first kiss: the kiss I expected, the kiss I desired.
MMTN: Now, that’s a thirteen of fourteen year old girl talking. Rather introspective for such a young person.
JL: Well, actually, it’s an adult woman looking back through time at the moment.
MMTN: I’m coming to understand the use of the word “moment” to describe these vignettes, but please continue.
JL: So, I admit that these aren’t necessarily all the thoughts of the thirteen year old girl. Nor are they the ruminations of a thirty year old woman, completely. They are thoughts of a young girl being recalled by an adult woman who is channeling the poetic voice of our devious narrator.
JL: Arbitrage! But translation is a fair depiction in a paradigm that lacks “Semiotic Arbitrage” to explain it.
MMTN: I should have seen that.
JL: But here’s another point. You don’t have to see it. You can see it if you want to.
MMTN: It’s a sweet story in the absence of these insights.
JL: Exactly. At least I think so.
MMTN: You tell a mean story. I found myself comparing you to Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
JL: I’ll take that. They’re pretty different types of authors with completely different methodologies, but viewing the stories–moments–as discrete units provides some of the qualities of these masters. In storytelling technique, I’m not sure there are two American writers that I would rather emulate.
MMTN: I see you try to give a go at Borges, too. Not sure you hit it square on, but you dance around it.
JL: Borges is my god. But, really, this form, this “Novel Collection” is about the oscillation between the parts and the whole, between the GUI and the contents. It can be nibbled in pieces with no regard for a larger narrative, or can be consumed in chunks to develop an individual read that is free of narrative “truth.” Meanwhile, the individual stories are entertaining as discrete units: touching, gripping, sentimental, erotic, joyful, and compelling. In a “soft pre-release” of the story Flag, thousands of online readers and critics from around the world consumed and acclaimed the unexpectedly sweet and complicatedly patriotic “moment.”
MMTN: We’ll talk about Flag in a minute, but tell me why you didn’t merely call the book “Moments” or even “Momentousness,” both of which are real words and both of which seem appropriate titles.
JL: Actually, neither is exactly right. It isn’t merely moments. It’s a collection of possibly related moments. It would be disingenuous to lead readers to believe that there are no connections. And “Momentous” implies something grand and spectacular. That is not really correct either.
MMTN: Possibly related? So, you’re saying that you haven’t written connections–you point out tangencies–into the collection?
JL: I’ve written in the possibility of connections, but some of them are spurious and inexact. Is the character from Borges the same as the one from Coma? There are a lot of similarities, but one goes to Southern Africa while the other goes to Western Africa? Wouldn’t a good narrator be more specific? More precise? So the reader gets to make that call, to make that connection when the narrator fails–for whatever reason–to make the connections concrete.
MMTN: Sounds noncommittal. Are you abandoning your responsibilities as an author?
JL: I’m ratcheting up the responsibilities of the reader to be complicit in the storytelling.
MMTN: Do readers want this responsibility?
JL: Mine do. Let me reiterate that Momentitiousness is not merely a collection of “related” stories. Instead, it is a collection of moments that may or may not be related, depending upon how the reader approaches it: A “Novel Collection.” The physical text is organized in one of 30 factorial (that’s 30 x 29x 28 x 27…x 2 x 1) ways that the book can be read. The points of tangency are intentionally spurious, allowing readers to wonder (perhaps decide) whether the jagged connections should be overlooked to strengthen the story they want to read or perhaps challenged as the deceptions of an untrustworthy narrator.
MMTN: Momentitiousness, then, is…
JL: The residue of a moment. A sense that something has happened and that it may have happened to you. That it may have happened just now. And in fact, it did. If nothing else, you just read it. It’s the aura of somethingness in time-space that you only know in recollection.
MMTN: Isn’t that what all story is?
JL: All of my stories.
MMTN: Do you think you’re taking something that belongs to everybody and claiming it as your own?
JL: I’m taking something that should belong to everybody and making that explicit. I would also argue that this is not what a novel does. The job of the novelist is to tell the story, to expose what she wants when she wants and how she wants. The novelist holds the power of narrative.
MMTN: You don’t expose and hide certain truths?
JL: My narrator may, but even my narrator provides freedom to the reader.
MMTN: Like a “Choose your own adventure?”
JL: Almost exactly like a “Chose your own adventure.” We haven’t talked about the organization of the book too much, but the way I present it in print is just one way of reading it. I would love readers to read it out of order, skipping around, randomly. I will tell you that if you read Juans-Blast-Briarpatch, you get a far different story than if you read Arbitrage-Blast-Briarpatch and differenter still if it’s Walden-Arbitrage-Briarpatch.
MMTN: And the tangencies?
JL: They take on different meanings in the absence of other pieces. The Arachne poem without the Fire story creates a completely different set of relationships.
MMTN: “Chose your own adventure?”
JL: If you approach the book that way, randomly, then you can look back and say, “here is the story that I created.” You aren’t active in its telling, but you are active in the connecting.
MMTN: Let’s talk about Flag, because you’ve had some success with that story independent of its place in Momentitiousness.
JL: True. That is a story that, like all the others, stands on its own. If this project were simply about telling great stories, I think I’ve nailed that.
MMTN: As an artist, you have to believe that.
MMTN: Some of the “moments” are rather opaque on their own. But I’ll agree that I can imagine reading these stories without regard to Semiotics or Arbitrage or time-space. Flag received some great press. It is sweet and tender and yet powerful. Where did this kid come from?
JL: Honestly, there might be a little bit of me in him.
MMTN: Memoir? I knew it!
JL: NO, NO, NO! Don’t even try to pin that label on any of this, it’s all fiction. I had other readers respond very sweetly that they felt I was writing about them.
MMTN: You capture this child’s thoughts with such precision. Would you read this section from Flag for us?
As a twelve year old, his concept of metaphor was yet undeveloped, so the flag did not merely stand for an America that he loved, it was an absolute object of adoration, like his dog, tater tots, and his mother. This is not to say that he didn’t also love America or Ronald Reagan in the same way, but they all had the same intrinsic value. One was not merely a symbol of the other; they all stood in a pantheon of things patriotic, not simply representing, but being. Too, his sense of love was nascent yet, and there was no distinction by the type of care or profundity with which he addressed the objects of his seemingly excessive adoration. Thus, he was bound by the same rules and expressions of intemperate love that he rained upon his dog, tater tots, and his mother.
MMTN: This was not you? Our little fledgling conservative lover of Ronald Reagan? And, the way he stands on the precipice of developing this idea called “metaphor,” which is really to one day become “Semiotic Arbitrage?”
JL: Fiction. To deny that an artist does not draw upon experience is to lie about the author’s craft. But to assert that an author writes only what he knows is to deny the artist of his craft.
MMTN: Fair enough. So, does this character–he has no name–recur?
JL: Do you want him to? Is he the same kid in Doritos? Or Merry-go-Round? Is he the adult in Blast? The boy in Words? The protagonist from Borges?
MMTN: He could be, I guess.
MMTN: So let’s talk for a second about your masterful use of pronouns in place of character names. I found this annoying at first.
JL: I don’t want to limit your read, the possibilities of connections. Names necessarily do that.
MMTN: But you do name one character.
JL: He is only a vessel for the imperfectly omniscient narrator to take form. The main character is the fully empowered reader, the “you” first introduced in One Cent in Manhattan: the foil to the narrator who carelessly shifts in and out of bodies and over time to present the moments that comprise the full text. The blurred lines between subject and object make “main characters” a redundant and unnecessary construction.
MMTN: By the time you finally give us a name, I have already come to accept that I don’t need names. But the name and the character you do finally give is somewhat disturbing. You put the narrator in blackface. You pull the voice of the actual character in and out, as though he is fighting to tell the story himself.
JL: My homage to Joel Chandler Harris.
MMTN: Would you mind, another section? From Briarpatch?
I know, you aren’t supposed to know my name because it shatters the “universality of the anonymous.” In a thorny world where we have adopted the compulsion to name everything, you’ve made it all this way without knowing who anybody in this whole damn book is. Must have driven you crazy, wondering, “Is that the same guy in those six stories?” and “How dare he talk that way about women,” and “That is the worst, most offensive black dialect I have heard since Joel Chandler Harris.” But Lawdy be, you don’ been throw’d in that briar patch, so you may’s well stick it out sin’ you already don in her’.
MMTN: You may get some angry press over that.
JL: So be it. I think this masking and unmasking is absolutely critical to the storytelling on the micro level. It is absolutely essential to the project and as a key to the accessibility of “Semiotic Arbitrage.” Without this moment within this moment, there is no tacky glue holding the text together.
MMTN: The last thing I’m going to ask about is the footnotes. This is where I really see Borges.
JL: Do you find the footnotes distracting?
MMTN: At first I did, then I just ignored them. When I arrived at Tangency Four, they made sense. I went back and reread them, disembodied from the stories they pretend to clarify.
JL: Beautiful. I’m not sure I could have asked for you to have treated them any differently. Truly, they are the text. Everything written large above them is fluff.
MMTN: What do you know about Dark Energy?
JL: It’s not what I know, it’s what the text knows.
MMTN: So the text has a life of its own?
JL: As much as you or I do.
MMTN: Getting rather metaphysical here.
JL: I’m not sure you can disentangle what the footnotes do from metaphysics any more than we can disentangle the sign from the signifier or the signified.
MMTN: Or the chair?
JL: Or the loonies.
MMTN: Jason Leclerc, Momentitiousness. Thank you so much for your time.
JL: Thanks again for having me. This has been a blast.
MMTN: Best of luck. Jason Leclerc, author of Momentitiousness.
You can blast through this book, or you can savor each carefully wrought word in this lyrical bootcamp for the mind. Either way, you will emerge on the other side banking more than you started with. Truly an adventure, from Arbitrage to Zombies.
Dialogue One: What is Semiotic Arbitrage
MMTN: We are here with Jason Leclerc, author of the new book Momentitiousness. You may know him as the PoetEconomist from his poetry blog of the same name. Like many authors, he is scrambling to get noticed in a twenty four hour news cycle that is increasingly fueled by intersections between the real world and the digital spaces proliferating the internet. In a way, he is depending on old-media content, but in another way, he is trying to undermine medium, genre, and form. Jason Leclerc, thanks for taking the time to sit with us for a few minutes.
JL: Are you kidding? Thanks for having me!
MMTN: Who are you? I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but what makes you think you have something that the world wants to read?
JL: You know, I’ve been asking myself the same thing for a few years now, ever since I decided to publish this work. Really, I’m just a poet.
MMTN: “Just a poet”? We can unpack that statement later, but why aren’t you publishing a collection of poetry?
JL: That happens later. This book took form and started asserting itself too quickly and with too much intensity for me to ignore it. Poetry is my love, it is my voice. Momentitiousness is my calling, my obsession.
MMTN: What do you mean? You talk as though you had no choice but to write it.
JL: That’s almost right. I had been publishing my poetry online under the PoetEconomist avatar for a few years. My intention was always—and still is—to give that digital space a traditional form, but when I dropped out of my PhD program, I had this giant looming project that I had to complete.
MMTN: Let’s talk about that for a second. So, you were in a PhD program, how far did you get?
JL: I’m what you call, “ABD, all but dissertation.” I even had a committee coming together. The work I was doing in an interdisciplinary program housed in the English Department called “Texts and Technology” at University of Central Florida was interrupted by the “Great Recession.” Maybe that’s a copout, maybe I was just overwhelmed, but the story I tell myself is that school was a luxury good that I could no longer afford when the economy took a crap. I had to find a paying job and I just didn’t have time anymore. I was so embarrassed; I fell off the face of the academic world. I know I disappointed a lot of people who put a lot of faith in me.
MMTN: “Story” seems an appropriate creation for you. You’re certainly not the only person to have had a hard time in the last decade.
JL: I’m not sure how much better that makes me feel.
MMTN: So, you quit school.
JL: I guess you can call it quitting, hearing that isn’t so easy, but you’re right. I quit. But I still had this fire in my belly. I got a full time job. Lots and lots of travel. Stayed afloat, no time or money for the extras like school.
MMTN: So, you quit school.
JL: OK, we got it. Next question.
MMTN: And you kept writing your poetry, but somehow, despite all the success you had with that, you decided to write a book of short stories. Why?
JL: The book began as an experiment in “Semiotic Arbitrage.”
MMTN: “Semiotic arbitrage”? I’ve never heard that phrase.
JL: That’s because I made it. During my PhD work, I developed “Semiotic Arbitrage” as a critical method designed to open up cultural understanding by recognizing that we all encounter events with pre-existing conditions and from different perspectives. It is meant to uncover the multiplicity of truth by shattering the illusion that “truth” is unitary.
MMTN: Isn’t truth “unitary” by definition? Hence the phrase, “THE truth?”
JL: I think there was a time when that might have been correct. In the age when science and religion opposed each other, each vying for ownership of truth. I think what I’m trying to say is that truth isn’t absolute, it’s something approached asymptotally. It’s sought, and in that seeking we discover beauty. That beauty resembles truth. But then, not to get too Kantian here, that beauty is perceived individually. So the sum of individual beauties become the sublime…this sublime is really truth, but it isn’t unitary. It’s fractalized. It’s the sum of the deviations from the average.
MMTN: Well, you just threw out about four words that I think you made up. Seriously? “Kantian?”
JL: Yes. Kantian, as in Immanuel Kant. And as to the other words, that’s probably true.
MMTN: As an author, can’t you use words that actually exist? Do you not have enough respect for language to do that?
JL: Wow. That’s twice now. I guess you’re not here to cut me slack.
MMTN: I’ve read that you are a conservative. It seems odd that someone who describes himself as such would be willing to throw so many conventions out the window. Some might call that hypocritical.
JL: I just call it open-minded. If I was arrogant, I’d call it innovative. Where do new technologies come from? People who are satisfied with the way things are or from people who imagine a different world?
MMTN: So, words are a technology?
JL: Totally! Was mankind created with the entire vocabulary we have today?
MMTN: I’m not here to argue.
JL: We could, but I’ve got a feeling we could spend a semester’s worth of time, and I’d like to get to Momentitiousness at some point in our discussion.
MMTN: Fair enough. So, this “Semiotic Arbitrage,” is a technology?
JL: The phrase is, in that it’s new. The theory is, in that it’s new. What it is, though, when you think about it, is pretty intuitive.
MMTN: So, Momentitiousness—another new word—
JL: Yes, another new word.
MMTN: So, Momentitiousness is related to “Semiotic Arbitrage” how, exactly?
JL: I was supposed to write a dissertation developing the theory and method. Instead, I wrote Momentitiousness as an example of how the theory and method can appear in practice.
MMTN: I’m still not sure I understand what “Semiotic Arbitrage” is, exactly. Have you told me?
JL: No, I haven’t. So, here it is. You’ll have to stick with me here. Think threes. Semiotics is a kind of science of words and symbols that join three things together. A classic example is a chair. We all know what is a chair is.
MMTN: Any special kind of chair?
JL: Not yet. I’ll let you extend the metaphor to La-Z-Boys on your own, later.
MMTN: OK, go ahead.
JL: We know what a chair is. It’s a four-legged structure that we sit on.
JL: That is the thing, the physical manifestation of this thing, chair. It is the “thing.”
MMTN: With you so far.
JL: Then there is what this thing stands for. Chair: a structure for sitting…it represents an idea of what a chair is. So we have this physical thing that conjures ideas of things like what it means to sit…to not stand…to relax…to relax while working…and so on.
MMTN: OK. The thing and then the thing’s meaning.
JL: But then, what do we have when there is no chair before us? How do we bring about the ideas of what a chair is without having the actual chair before us?
MMTN: The word, “Chair”?
JL: YES!!! Threes: the thing, what the thing represents, and what represents the thing. In semiotics, we use the terms “Sign”, “Signifier”, and “Signified”.
MMTN: Sign, Signifier, Signified. Three. OK, I’ve got semiotics, I think. We can talk about recliners later. Arbitrage now?
JL: Arbitrage is a little easier. Still think threes, although it can be far more complicated. When we’re done, you can sit in your recliner and let your mind wander around the complications.
JL: Classically: You have five Canadian dollars—I love that they are also known as “Loonies”–which you can buy four American Dollars with. I have four American dollars that I can buy three Euros with. Our friend Pierre has three Euros that he can buy six Canadian dollars with. Through trade, and not by anything else but knowledge, you can end up with six Canadian dollars.
MMTN: That’s arbitrage?
JL: That’s it. Profit through tripartite (or multipartite) trade.
MMTN: Well, that’s not rocket science. Maybe I should say it’s not bundled-mortgage-backed securities?
JL: Loonie. Now, of course, the profitable gap in information is rapidly closed, especially as the time between trades and the proliferation of information through technology shortens.
MMTN: So arbitrage is fleeting.
JL: But a powerful metaphor, nonetheless. So, now overlay that trade metaphor on top of semiotics.
MMTN: Wow. I don’t know whether to punch you or hug you. This has some pretty cool implications…I think. Is there anything practical that comes of this? Policy implications? Truly tangible?
JL: I call it “cultural profit.” Those gaps between the sign, signifier and signified—think about a recliner instead of a stool, both chairs—produce hugely interesting opportunities to understand the world around us. How we sit and ponder, whether it’s a leisurely activity or one that requires us to work.
MMTN: I think I will need a beer to make this rabbit hole palatable.
JL: I prefer to think of it in terms of gravity and black holes.
MMTN: Where do these cultural profits go? Who are the beneficiaries?
JL: Many of them go unrecognized. They are fleeting. It’s the job of the semiotic arbitrageur—the artist in the digital age—to identify them. Because, remember, there is this tendency for the information gap to be traded away very quickly. That’s where traditional narrative comes from: the average story, pushed forward by a predestined ending.
MMTN: So this is our in to Momentitiousness?
JL: Exactly. So let me say it this way, to get it out because I’ve been practicing this word track for a while. “Semiotic Arbitrage” is a critical method that overlays the tripartite imperfections exposed during a semiotic methodology with the metaphor of trade-based arbitrage.
MMTN: I can see these systems working together nicely, although I’m not sure how one is a method and one is a metaphor.
JL: Think of it, then, as a system–what academics in my field might call a heuristic–for approaching the truth, it bares the inconsistencies in traditional narrative—history and literature—by positing that those inconsistencies yield a richer understanding of multiple truths in trade.
MMTN: Those asymptotes, again? Approaching truth but never actually achieving it?
JL: In the time-space continuum, Semiotic Arbitrage deposits cultural profits, derived from the error coefficients along the least-squares line, into vast and fluid— universal—banks.
JL: So, if you imagine that all of history is a collection of moments that are pulled together in a single line–a single story that smooths out the wrinkles of other perspectives–then imagine that the line is exploded out into its constituent parts, then you have a much richer understanding of history. Certainly more interesting.
MMTN: So, in practical terms?
JL: If we read the New York Times, we get one view of a story. If we read the Wall Street Journal, we get another. If we listen to cultural phenomena play out in pop music, we get yet another. None is wholly right in and of itself. Each story has its version of the truth–even if it’s nothing more than through omission and inclusion–which is valuable.
MMTN: That’s reasonable. And, you’re right, pretty obvious. Is this really groundbreaking?
JL: I admitted earlier that it was intuitive. So, we might say that the most perfect expression of this method is to concentrate on every possible interpretation of a moment. Of course, then we know nothing else, ever. A black hole.
MMTN: Yes, I was just about to say, “a black hole.” So what you’re saying is that Momentitiousness employs this metaphor, “Semiotic Arbitrage”?
JL: It employs the metaphor as a method.
MMTN: I guess you can parse words.
JL: Better than making them up.
MMTN: Touché. So Semiotic Arbitrage is a method used to derive this book.
JL: Yes. Sounds like you got it. Should we stop here?
MMTN: Well, I feel like we have finally arrived at the starting point.
JL: I’m going to need a more comfortable chair.