“I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque.”
–Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
In the first of a series of short blog essays that explore different aspects of writing for the internet, my rough guide is a lecture series by the Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels Italo Calvino.
Each one recommended different qualities he thought would be important, including Quickness; Exactitude; Visibility; Multiplicity; and Consistency. Lightness, the importance of “quick light touch” is the first.
Why? Well, one reason is the sheer weightlessness of the new technology we use in our communication networks. Something Calvino back in 1986…
The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with “bits” in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.
The heavy presses of the 19C and 20C are now museum pieces. Gone also is the certainty that flows from a limited number of outlets with the industrial capacity (and capital) to listen, produce and amplify a single authoritative account of the world we live in.
However, Calvino cites French poet Paul Valéry “one should be light like a bird, and not like a feather”. That is, with purpose and direction as opposed to such feathery whimsy as likes, cat gifs and selfies: the social detritus of corporate advertising machines.
As we enter the last stages of an old, ersatz, 20C media, the job of the digital writer, more and more, is to develop networks which are consciously designed to enable (knowledge) logistics, rather than paying someone else your own beer money.
A key story in Lightness is the myth of the fleet-of-foot hero, Perseus. He’s the one who killed Medusa using the reflection of her head in his bronze shield: thus he “fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror”.
Perseus conceals the gorgon’s head in a bag but treats it with kindness and reverence, and uses it “only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues”. Lightness in everything.
We need to shift lightly towards uncovering the new options we need, rather than using data to reinforce what we’ve already got. What we’ve already got, in terms of Northern Ireland, and certainly in terms of Derry and the west, is not enough.
Old recipes don’t work, whether it is thoughtless austerity imposed from without (whether via banks and or the UK/EU institutions), or the grasp of old (and barren) tribal certainty that blocks every route forward before they’ve even been considered.
Calvino ends the lecture with a reference to Kafka’s short story, “Der Kübelreiter” (or “The Knight of the Bucket”). The image of the empty (but magical) bucket prefigures the writer’s task as filling it with nothing more than “what we ourselves are able to bring to it”.
Thus the essence of lightness depends upon a profound (and profoundly social) autopoietic shift. Or as the Irish American writer, Flannery O’Brien once famously put it “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Caught halfway between a heavy past, and a light digital future our social cognition abilities are far from what they should be. However, in the age of the solipsistic “selfie” it is not sufficient just to write about what you (or I) think.
In fact, we need to put out material that others can play with and build upon. To create conversations at scale, that with sufficient generativity can bring forward new forms of actionable insight.
“… digital can work for us, and not the inverse.”
— Irene Braam
NB: Thanks to John Kellden for his input and inspiration. On Saturday 28th April I’ll be working with a small group of between 6 and 12 writers in Derry by the Irish Writers Centre in an all-day public workshop at the Playhouse. Cost is a modest £/€25.
(Please do spread the word to anyone who you think would be interested.)