Uses of Knowledge/Data/Detail in Writing and Reading


by John Kinsella

I’ve always loved ‘data’, though I am sceptical of how it is sourced and utilised. This re-engineered novel I’ve been talking about over recent weeks, Morpheus, is a book stuffed with data, yet aims to be a challenge to the ‘empirical’; the data of ‘learning’ — from school, the first year or two of university, private reading and even (scientific) researching. While writing Morpheus, I was studying and occasionally working in my own home lab, complete with Mettler balance, Bunsen burners, titration equipment and micro ground-jointed organic glassware, including Liebig condensers and even a Friedrichs condenser, and an old Cathode Ray Oscilloscope: a Cro, which worked well with all the ‘crows’ in my poems, and also informed my sense of poetic rhythms.

But the home lab was becoming a thing of the past and, leaving the county for the city to attend university, I still worked on and off in a commercial laboratory, preparing mineral sands for analysis and supervising the loading of (mineral sands) ships. Simultaneously, my politics of protest (eventually against the very work I was doing), were simmering and manifesting. I was obtaining knowledge through praxis, knowledge that would be used against its sources.

And ‘data’ are subjective in their derivations and applications. Maybe this is why ‘pseudo-science’ fascinates me, with its purported facts (I would argue plenty of facts arising from the ‘hard sciences’ are purported or dubious as well, especially given I am not satisfied with any ‘proofs’ of existence in the first place). I have mentioned my poetry of ‘graphology’, which has its origins in the materials that would constitute the novel Morpheus in my late teens, but I haven’t alluded to my interest in alchemy. I no longer have it, outside readings of Faust, but it’s omnipresent in Morpheus, and was probably one of the factors that enticed Paul Hardacre to offer to publish the manuscript with Papertiger back in 2007 (after a journey from there, it has been looked after by Geoffrey Gatza at Blazevox — thanks to both for assisting in its passage). Paul’s knowledge of esoterica and alchemy is second to none, and it informs his poetry as well as his critical practice. Of his book liber xix: differentia liber (Puncher and Wattman Poetry, NSW, 2011) I wrote:

liber xix is a remarkable if not unique book of poetry. To quote an alchemical expression from a quote cited by Hardacre, it’s a book in which language ‘dissolves and combines’. But for a work so specific in its prosody, the key to unlocking its mysteries actually locates itself in spiritual essence derived from a mixture of the animal, vegetable, mineral, and quintessential. This is a book about the meeting of differences, about the alchemical reactions that arise from these meetings, these mixings. The poem is always more than the sum of its parts, and change is always part of the discourse the poems engender within themselves, between each other, and in the context of the quotes that accompany them. These glimpses into chaos and formation are also mini-epics, condensed ‘vedas’ and ‘sagas’ reaching across belief systems and geographies to find a ‘universal’ way of viewing being. Across the ampersands the components of the poem speak, and accumulate towards a maxim-like ‘unconclusion’ – the ‘noble’ is reached only nominally, and the ‘lesser’ (base) elements of the poem retain their properties. Alchemically speaking, though deeply desiring and even believing a closure is possible, no ultimate ‘coniunctio’ is reached; maybe it is even studiously avoided in a playback Gertrude Stein would possibly have found enticing (if she had written them). But it’s overall this work really comes into its own – it is a narrative, a journey from heaven to hell, from God to the faces of evil. Evil is named. Strands of mystical histories of humanity twist around each other, mingle fluids. This is a beautifully terrifying work. Hardacre is one of the finest poetical transmuters out there. He is to be venerated and feared at once. He is going places few contemporary poets have risked acknowledging, never mind visiting. Like all great innovators, he reaches as far back as knowledge.

bk_liberxixAlchemy has an essential space in the evolution of scientific research and can’t just be dismissed as turning-lead-into-gold fantasies, and a willingness to sell one’s soul to gain power. Articulating the body, the soul, of a human’s relationship to nature and ‘existence’ adds up to much more than ‘magic’ and greed. Reading Paracelsus and Meister Eckhart was part of the protagonist of Morpheus, Thomas’s, raison d’être as much as it was my own. How did this come about? Well, I lost ‘religion’ when I was sixteen or seventeen and walked out of a Christmas service during which the minister had compared the bounties of Christ’s birth to a cash register. Looking back, I’d like to think he was being ironic, critiquing the spendfest that is Christmas, but I doubt it. I was reading Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy; I was reading the Bhagavad-Gita; I was reading the Koran, and I was reading the Bible. I had been baptised and confirmed; I’d always thought Christ was okay but the trappings of Church were like the trappings of the state: about control, and little caring for anything outside their own existences. Thomas in Morpheus struggles with all this.

But what remained from my comparative readings was my own sense of what constituted ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’, and a lot of information. I continue to process that information through my writing, be it poetry, essays or fictions. I am interested in applying it ‘correctly’, but also ‘incorrectly’. I find errors generative, creative and ‘honest’. I find the slippage between fact and error enticing.

Why data? Actually, for an event to be staged in a narrative, for an event to provide the co-ordinates for a poem in which the ‘ineffable’ is framed with an eye to quiddity finding its own voice (metaphor in overdrive), one doesn’t need a lot of data. Just enough: let the language do the work.

Or is this undervaluing data? In the same way that the adage ‘show don’t tell’ is the death sentence to innovation and expansion of possibilities (being told doesn’t mean you have to ‘listen’: you can rearrange in your own head), so data can enliven our reading of an event. Superfluous, extraneous, even false, (excessive) data lose points of reference, become detached from the causal event. But that tells us something about how such events can’t exist in vacuums, that they interconnect on the most obtuse levels. An example: I write about a tree limb being blown down in a storm and falling very near us (my partner and myself). If we hadn’t moved from where we were sitting a few minutes prior, the limb would have fallen on us and possibly killed us. The poem is in that slippage, surely. So why stuff the poem with detail about the state of the road, a death a century ago and so on? Because it interconnects and paints a wider picture. We are small points in the pointillist whole (which is more of a hole and never complete).

And taking it further, what is the relation between ‘data’ and ‘detail’: is ‘extraneous’ description the same as precise detailed observation, and is detailed observation at least part of the material of ‘data’? Detail is not simply an accumulation of adjectives, an eruption of ‘purple prose’ (though that can be interesting in itself), but the precise deployment of specific information relating to an object/event/scenario. In addition, there’s the provision of ‘extra’ (and additional) information within and outside the frame which enhances our reading of the core subject, the focal point. Fine detail might give us a more ‘realistic’ or maybe ‘vivid’ picture of something, and thus encourage a depth of appreciation, but it can also distract from the supposed main object of focus. Yet it’s in this diffusion that I find expansion: tangents and alternative avenues for rereading/misreading and reconstructing. No knowledges are unrelated.

The misuse of data is equally interesting. Using ‘facts’ doesn’t mean you have to use ‘facts’ correctly. And facts are never correct. To observe a series of high temperatures precisely, and say that it was colder than expected, opens all sorts of possibilities: metaphorically and factually. I believe in the figurative strength of tautology: from the vaguely tautological ‘boiling hot’ to the more explicit ‘frozen ice’. One might translate, say, a series of readings of seismic activity into verbal and numerical tautologies. Therein is a poem.

And the ‘misuse’ of nomenclature, terminologies and ‘information’ often tells us more about a condition of being than stoical belief in any ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Deploying a word like ‘algorithm’ as metaphor doesn’t mean you don’t know what an algorithm is. It amazes me how upset people get with what they see as the casual deployment of ‘scientific terms’. As a slightly (though not particularly) relevant aside, I was making and programming computers in the mid seventies. I have no admiration for them now (for non-violent neo-Luddite reasons), but gee, I know how to use them (and, once upon a time, to make them). Maybe if a word is separated from its root meaning, or its acquired practice-application/s, the reader needs to ask why, and do some work beyond literal definitions. Facts are distractions as much as confirmations.

Knowledge is implicit in how and why we communicate. Writing is a processing of knowledge. It’s also a constant process of recategorising and reformatting knowledge. Those who control knowledge are about not liberty but deprivation. The net is supposed to be a knowledge revolution, but too often it’s a zone of mutual policing. The correction of wikipedia entries is an interesting case in point. Yes, I like to be certain the information I am reading is verifiable, and effectively expressed in terms of conveying these verifiable facts, but I also know that facts change and that sometimes an incorrect detail can import more of a ‘truth’ (behind the scenes) than cold, hard detail. We know we witness events differently, even if outcomes can be ‘agreed’ upon. But the reading and hearing of many different witnessings make a picture more absorbable. For me, that’s what writing is, and why writing can never be limited to a few classics, but must be an ongoing process of creativity: good/bad, right/wrong, ‘stylish’/’sloppy’, factual/sketchy… whatever binaries one creates, it’s all and much more.

Morpheus is a book stuffed full of ‘data’ (from chemical equations to details from Herodotus, that questionable and often hyperbolic ‘father of history’ who so stretched truth, but likely with great integrity: those wonderful contradictions). Data morph into the phantasm, the fact becomes the error, and that ambitious but shrewd Athenian, Themistocles, drinks too much. If we suddenly lost the ability mentally to file the facts we learn, what emerges when we try to affirm a ‘truth’ might well be poetry and a ‘fiction’. And I feel that ‘fiction’ is just truth and reality in a decategorised form. Its liberties are in its formal controls, in its ‘writerly’ concerns of composition and reading.

I notice that books on sports are often foisted on young readers: lots of facts about how a game is played, mixed with aspiration, disappointment and whatever moral message the writer feels obliged to push. Not surprising, really: arranging the figurative with the factual. A little older, and maybe it’ll be historical fictions. Combines a notion of ‘learning’ (historical facts) and socio-cultural application: scenarios and correlations we might draw with our own lives, our own behaviours. A model is made. I’d rather an historical novel with all the facts wrong, but giving the impression they are correct, than one that really only gives me a story trapped in a timeline, and period-appropriate details about clothing. In the slippage, the model collapses, and literature is made. Literature, in whatever form, is about change, and changing how we perceive ‘facts’ is a vital part of this.