Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Fiction of Borges

I will now discuss a few of Borges' stories and how they predict modern conditions brought about by the digital paradigm and the online world, as suggested in this introductory post.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is one of Borges' longer works. The narrator in this story discovers a mysterious and apparently anomalous encyclopedia article about a civilization called Uqbar, and does some research to find out if it really exists. Initially, it seems impossible to find other documentation to verify its existence. He later comes into possession of a volume that appears to be from an encyclopedia that originated in this imaginary world called Tlon. It becomes apparent that others have been scouring libraries for more information on Tlon. The content of the encyclopedia is so thorough that it must be the invention of a massive conspiracy of academics from various disciplines. The narrator describes the astounding linguistics and philosophy of Tlon in detail. A part of the description reads:
The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön's conjectural Ursprache, from which the "present" languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word "moon,", but there is a verb which in English would be "to moon" or "to moonate." "The moon rose above the river" is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: "upward behind the onstreaming it mooned."

The language of Tlon effects their epistemology and their entire understanding of the world. They reject and even have trouble understanding concepts of materialism and spatial reasoning. In Tlon, their perception of things is abstract and incompatible with the philosophies of the real world. This even effects the permanence of physical objects in Tlon. Matter is a transitive and inconsistent thing. It's difficult to summarize all of these ideas without quoting the whole description from Borges, but what they do is brilliantly convey an entirely new and foreign worldview in just a few pages.

The story ends with a postscript dated 1947 (several years after the actual story was published) which describes how the rest of the Encyclopedia of Tlon became known to the world, and it's ideas promulgated. The fantastic world of Tlon then intrudes upon reality, and the narrator sums up the results:

A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

This story, published in 1940, is analogous in many ways to the the creation and proliferation of the internet. Like the creation of Tlon, the internet started with "a scattered dynasty of solitary men" and later grew exponentially to be embraced by the whole world. The internet and networking technology introduced new paradigms. Communication that was less physical and personal could be considered just as real and valid. Ideas could be shared in a manner that separated them from the physical attributes of identity and body language. Imaginary worlds like Tlon have been created online and many people inhabit them as fully as they do the real world. Jamie F. Metzl, in the World Policy Journal (2008 vol:25 iss:3),  predicts that " virtual worlds [such as Second Life] will, by 2033, have overtaken the two-dimensional Internet as the predominant system of non face-to-face human interaction. Communication that now takes place by phone or e-mail will by then be carriedout largely in these three-dimensional interactive spaces." This suggests, as did Borges decades earlier, that the world at large is able to change its understanding to embrace completely invented, abstract ideas, as an extension of reality.

The Circular Ruins

The Circular Ruins is another story that deals with accepting the non-physical as a part of reality. In this case, the topic is dreams, and their ability to affect the real world. It is important to note that the story is influenced by traditional Mayan spirituality and how it incorporates the world of dreams. I have previously discussed these connections in depth, but to summarize: The main character of the story is a magician of sorts who goes through the long and involved process of creating a man in his dreams, intending to bring him into reality. The character in the story spends a great deal of time sleeping and in his dreams he gradually constructs a man, who ultimately resembles himself, and with the help of the fire deity of the temple, is able to bring his creation into the real world.The magician then learns through supernatural events that he is also the the creation of the dreams of another. The Mayans also believed that dreams could effect reality, (and that they were in fact, real) and were an integral part of spiritual and daily life. What this story, and Mayan spirituality suggest is that it is common and even natural for humans to make something outside of the physical realm a part of reality. Therefore, integrating the digital into our lives can be a productive way to fulfill this human tendency.

The Aleph

The narrator of The Aleph  becomes acquainted with a mediocre poet who is attempting to encompass the whole of the earth in a singular epic. His inspiration, he says, comes from The Aleph, a small sphere that enables the viewer to simultaneously view everything that currenty exists. The narrator describes his encounter with the Aleph:
I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon -- the unimaginable universe.
The experience, obviously, is overwhelming.The Aleph is a powerful resource, but it is probably too much for the human mind to make sense of. The analogy to be drawn here is that, in today's ultraconnected world, people with a connection to the internet have, in a sense, their own Aleph. They have the entirety of the digital world at their fingertips, accessible from one place, with no limitations of space or distance. And although the digital experience isn't quite as universal or simultaneous as that of the Aleph, the advancement of networking technology is making it ever so much closer to it. Increasing numbers of people are becoming increasingly connected and bringing more data to the online cloud. Information and sources and becoming streamlined and aggregated with more sophisticated programs. The whole earth itself can be explored instantaneously in 3D on Google Earth, giving us a power startlingly similar in a very literal way to that of Borges' Aleph.

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