Wednesday, April 28, 2021

flowers of the machine, part 1: "a methodical encyclopedia of the imaginary planet"

The book was written in English and contained 1001 pages. On the yellow leather back I read these curious words which were repeated on the title page: A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. Vol XI. Hlaer to Jangr. There was no indication of date or place. On the first page and on a leaf of silk paper that covered one of the color plates there was stamped a blue oval with this inscription: Orbis Tertius. Two years before I had discovered, in a volume of a certain pirated encyclopedia, a superficial description of a nonexistent country; now chance afforded me something more precious and arduous. Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet's entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy. All of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.
        —Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (1940)

Maybe it's because the job has been running me ragged these last few weeks. It could be that I've rolled into one of the troughs in my cycle of peaks and slumps. Possibly I'm experiencing some residual burnout from the protracted effort of composing—and thrice revising—a 700-page novel (which I would very much like you to read). But whatever the cause, focusing on writing lately has been like trying to flex a sprained muscle. I can only seem to exert myself in hour-long bursts, after which I come into a refractory period where all I can do is (re-)read X-Men comics.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe the comics are part of the problem. The instantaneous, tickling gratification of supernormal spectacle and soap operatics strikes a more aggressive claim for my time than the unaided inclination to stare at a blank page or empty text field and await the appearance of coherent sentences. So I downloaded a site-blocking app to bar myself from poring over the digitized pages of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men for the third or fourth time. Problem solved.

Then somehow or other I ended up at the Marvel Database (a facet of Fandom, née Wikia) and spent forty-five minutes reading about X-Men comics until I realized what was happening and added to the list of blocked sites.

Not long after that, I was skimming the details on the new Magic: The Gathering expansion—and before I knew it, I was browsing the MTG Wiki. There went another half hour. Unfortunately, the way Fandom's wikis are indexed prevents a blanket block under A total self-ban would necessitate blocking every domain individually.

In and of itself, the lure of these wikis as a way of passively occupying the hours between sleep, work, and personal/familial/social obligations probably doesn't require any more explanation than the appeal of the media products their pages summarize. Behavior analysis could describe the attraction in terms of stimulus classes or relational frames; cognitive psychology might talk about mental connections, and so on. We gaze at the fan-sourced wiki about the thing because we like gazing at the thing. And of course, the attention-retaining interactivity of hypertext can't be discounted—nor can the well-established connection between screen-delivered "content" and dopamine pathway activity.

At any rate, the Fandom network attracted about 750 million visitors last month. Clearly I'm not the only one who gets a buzz from reading about the esoterica of proprietary fictional entities.

This isn't the first time we've idly pondered Fandom here, but I'm not finished chewing on it quite yet.¹ Its existence is unprecedented and utterly fascinating. The incomparable Borges dreamed up something resembling it in his "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which the discovery of an encyclopedia containing the history, philosophy, and science of a fictitious planet precipitates the encroachment of that world's reality upon our own. Even if truth isn't really stranger than fiction in this case, it certainly isn't any less interesting.