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Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception (AKA, All Knowledge Isn’t Equal)

Let’s consider the truth behind advertising.

[This can be considered a response to this post, and its comments thread.]


You’ve just become the fiction editor of a small journal. You open your email and see that you’ve received 1,000 unsolicited submissions. The first ten were sent by:

  • Carlos Shirley
  • Jeanne Goss
  • Jack Livingston
  • Christine Stribling
  • Melissa Mathieu
  • Benjamin Tatro
  • Tao Lin
  • Ryan Monk
  • Naomi Foltz
  • Matthew Orosco

Which one do you open and read first?


Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1963):

Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life—its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness—conjoin to dull our sensory faculties.


You’re browsing one of the bookshelves in my apartment, looking for something to read. You see:

  • Michael Ajvaz, The Golden Age
  • Pierre Louÿs, The Young Girls’ Handbook of Good Manners
  • Gerald Murnane, Inland
  • Lily Hoang, The Evolutionary Revolution
  • Desmond Hogan, Stories
  • Friedrich von Schiller, Naive and Sentimental Poetry
  • Lore Segal, Lucinella
  • Robbie Q. Telfer, Spiking the Sucker Punch

Which book do you decide to pick up? Why?


Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1966):

It would be wrong to think that the negatives of Beckett are a denial of the paradigm in favour of reality in all its poverty. In Proust, whom Beckett so admires, the order, the forms of the passion, all derive from the last book; they are positive. In Beckett, the signs of order and form are more or less continuously presented, but always with a sign of cancellation; they are resources not to be believed in, cheques which will bounce. Order, the Christian paradigm, he suggests, is no longer usable except as an irony; that is why the Rooneys collapse in laughter when they read on the Wayside Pulpit that the Lord will uphold all that fall.

But of course it is this order, however ironized, this continuously transmitted idea of order, that makes Beckett’s point, and provides his books with the structural and linguistic features which enable us to make sense of them. In his progress he has presumed upon our familiarity with the habits of language and structure to make the relation between the occulted forms and the narrative surface more and more tenuous; in Comment c’est he mimes a virtually schismatic breakdown of this relation, and of his language. It is perfectly possible to reach a point along this line where nothing whatever is communicated, but of course Beckett has not reached it by a long way; and whatever preserves intelligibility is what prevents schism.

This is, I think, a point to be remembered whenever one considers extremely novel, avant-garde writing. Schism is meaningless without reference to some prior condition: the absolutely New is simply unintelligible, even as novelty. (115–6, my emphases)


Here are the page view statistics for the ten most popular articles I’ve written here at Big Other:

Less popular posts:

…Let’s compare that with Google searches on some of those key terms:

  • Batman: about 49,100,000 results
  • Inception: about 41,300,000 results
  • Scott Pilgrim: about 20,200,000 results
  • Frank Miller: about 1,250,000 results
  • Ari Up: about 335,000 results
  • Jack Horkheimer: about 38,800 results
  • Peter Wyngarde: about 27,800 results

People gravitate toward the familiar. The rest is noise, unseen, unrecognizable, unremembered.


See in particular from 2:30–end.


From Annette Atkins’s “A Teaching Strategy: Teaching U.S. History Backwards”:

By the end of Day 4 I want to have on the blackboard a list of [the students’] personal issues and a list of recent historical events. Then we set about the task of relating one list to the other. What on the historical events list helps us understand why so many students worry about their weight or have anorexia/bulimia? What on this historical list helps us understand why students care so much about grades? What on the list helps us understand why students don’t take much interest in contemporary politics? We feel our personal issues so personally, but often, I’m arguing, they grow pretty understandably from the times in which we live. We stand in a particular historical time and, as such, we are also “historical.” To emphasize another of my concerns, we then shift emphasis. OK, how would your lists—either personal or historical—change if you changed something about yourself? If you were born in a different part of the United States, of a different ethnicity or religion or race or class, etc.? We’re shaped by our times, but not all people are shaped in the same ways.

On Day 6, we shift to their parents’ generation. Most of my students are of “traditional” college age, so I can use this convention of them/their parents as a shorthand language for comparing the 1960s and the 1990s. They’ve been reading Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (the single most successful book I’ve ever used in the survey) and textbook chapters about the 1950s and 1960s. They’ve also been assigned to interview their parents (or another person who came of age then) to find out what their list of issues would have been in 1968. […] (my emphasis)


I was born in 1976. I didn’t learn about—I didn’t even hear about—the Paris Mai 68 events until 1996, nearly thirty years after they happened.

Surely I encountered references to Mai 68 before that, though—references both overt and oblique. So how did I experience those references before 1996? Did I in fact experience them?

(That YouTube video, by the way, and for what it’s worth, has since 21 April 2008 had 14,356 views.)

[Update 17 June 2012: Now it’s at 26,485 views.]


From David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art (Eighth Edition, 2008):

Precisely because artworks are human creations and because the artist lives in history and society, he or she cannot avoid relating the work, in some way, to other works and to aspects of the world in general. A tradition, a dominant style, a popular form–some such elements will be common to several different artworks. These common traits are usually called conventions. […] Genres, as we shall see in Chapter 9, depend heavily upon conventions. It’s a convention of the musical film that characters sing and dance, as in The Wizard of Oz. It’s one convention of narrative form that the conclusion solves the problems that the characters confront, and Wizard likewise accepts this convention by letting Dorothy return to Kansas.

From the spectator’s standpoint, the perception of artistic form will arise from cues within the artwork and from prior experiences–experiences derived from everyday life and from other artworks. […] [W]e are able to recognize the journey pattern in The Wizard of Oz. We’ve taken trips and we’ve seen other films organized around this pattern (such as Stagecoach or North by Northwest), and that pattern is to be found in other artworks, such as Homer’s Odyssey or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Our ability to spot cues, to see them as forming systems, and to create expectations is guided by our real-life experiences and our knowledge of artistic conventions. […]

Further, artworks can create new conventions. A highly innovative work can at first seem odd because it refuses to conform to the norms we expect. Cubist painting, the French “New Novel” of the 1950s, and ambient music seemed bizarre initially because of their refusal to adhere to conventions. But a closer look may show that an unusual artwork has its own rules, creating an unorthodox formal system that we can learn to recognize and respond to. Eventually, the new systems offered by such unusual works may themselves furnish conventions and thus create new expectations. (58–9, emphases in the original)


Here are the first ten minutes (after the opening credits) of Peyton Reed’s Down with Love (2003):

What’s happening in this film? Is it easy to follow? Is there a plot? Can you summarize what you’ve seen so far?

Now here are the first ten minutes of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961):

What’s happening in this film? Is it easy to follow? Is there a plot? Can you summarize what you’ve seen so far?

Here’s another first ten minutes, of a different film:

What about this one? What’s going on? Is it easier to follow than the other two? Harder?



From James Peterson’s “Is a Cognitive Approach to the Avant-garde Cinema Perverse?”:

A considerable number of avant-garde films might be thought to defy rational comprehension because they are abstract, in the sense that they have minimal representational content, like instrumental music. Films that are abstract in this sense include the work of Oscar Fishinger, Viking Eggeling, and much of the work of Len Lye and Harry Smith, among many others. As the musical titles of films such as Rhythmus 21 (Richter, 1921) and Symphonie Diagonale (Eggeling, c. 1925) suggest, these films cannot be interpreted with methods appropriate to narrative film. Similarly, the basic comprehension of these films, whatever that may turn out to be, is certainly not like the reconstruction of the causal relationships that is central to the basic comprehension of narrative art.

But even if we grant that these films call for something very different from the comprehension of narrative art, this does not commit us to the idea that there is no basic comprehension involved. […] But in a good many avant-garde films, this level of basic comprehension can be quite complex. In Zorn’s Lemma or Print Generation, for example, puzzling out the basic structures and the images is the main pleasure of the film. (116–7, my emphasis)


Jonah Berger, Alan T. Sorensen and Scott J. Rasmussen: “Can Negative Publicity Help?” (2010) [PDF]:

[T]hrough increasing awareness, negative publicity may increase sales when product awareness or accessibility is low. If few people know about a book released by a new author, any publicity, regardless of valence, should increase awareness. […] In addition, negative publicity may be even more likely to boost sales if awareness and publicity valence become dissociated in memory. Similar to the sleeper effect (Hannah and Sternthal 1984), where source information tends to become dissociated from the message over time, people may have a feeling of awareness, or remember they heard something about the product, but the valence may be forgotten. Work on advertising, for example, theorizes that even negative ads might boost purchase likelihood after delay because it increases brand awareness. (816–7, my emphasis)


Film critic Kristin Thompson:

How many directors are there whose bad reviews just make you more eager to see their new films? I’m not at Cannes and haven’t seen Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme. But I’ve read some negative reviews, mainly those by Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy. Now I’m really hoping that Film socialisme shows up at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year. (Please, Mr. Franey? I promise to blog about it.)

Greg Gerke:

Actually the more people say they hate a book, the more likely I am to read it than something that everyone likes.


New knowledge, when encountered, if it is remembered, is always attached to—it is understood from the position of—one’s old knowledge. That new knowledge can and should cause us to reappraise what we already know (or think we know), since what we know is possibly incorrect, being always incomplete.


From a post at Tao Lin’s blog,  “britney spears stickers ‘have arrived'” (29 April 2008):

these stickers are to promote my new poetry book, cognitive-behavioral therapy (may 15, melville house), if you live in nyc you will maybe see them on select major corporations, pieces of trash on the ground, and most nyu facilities

From the comments section:

Anthony Joseph said…

hmm great design and all but i am a bit curious how it is intended to promote your book. how will anyone know that this is supposed to represent ‘tao lin’ or ‘cognative behavioral therapy?’

10:37 pm

Tao Lin said…

people will ask people

the information will be known

this is a very straightforward, direct, honest situation

the britney spears stickers exist to promote tao lin’s new poetry book called cognitive-behavioral therapy


You’re in a bookstore, browsing the shelves. You notice a book with a bright pink cover. You recognize neither its title nor its author’s name. You pass it by, go look at something else.

A few weeks later, you’re back in the same bookstore. You see the bright pink book again; you remember noticing it before. Are you ready this time to finally pick it up, flip through it, maybe even buy it? What would you need to know about it in order to buy it?

I’ll tell you more about it. Let me know when you’re finally ready.

The book’s title is Rose Alley.

It’s author is Jeremy M. Davies.

His author’s bio says this:

Jeremy M. Davies was born in Brooklyn. He is an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

Are you ready yet? No?

There is also a blurb on the back:

Read this book. Jeremy M. Davies sets his ‘tale’ in 1968 Paris during the student riots. A film crew works on a movie of violent events that happened in the 18th century between Poet Laureate John Dryden and the erotic versifier, the Earl of Rochester. Each chapter treats one of the characters, so the book presents like a photogravure. Here’s the editor, director, actors, and etc. They are revealed as if a handsome bird shows us one tail feather at a time until the whole tail is told. The static qualities of the narration, persistently digressive, play against these explosive events and violent story. This disjunct creates potent silent. The real action becomes the reader reacting to Mr. Davies’s sentences. He is an impeccable stylist who creates a richness full of Nabokovean Pynchonistics, totally original, dressed in wacky erudition.

—Steve Katz

And there is another blurb as well:

Jeremy M. Davies has written a literally overwhelming book: the historical Rose Alley was the scene of Dryden’s brutal ambush by hirelings of the Earl of Rochester, and each chapter of Davies’s book appropriately ambushes the reader, not with brutality but with wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance that propels us from one sizzling and often hilarious surprise to the next. You have no excuse for not reading this book.

—Harry Mathews

Have you decided to buy this book?

If so, when will you actually read it?

And if you do, how will reading it change your view of the world, or the part of the world that you’re already so used to seeing? (Will it?)


Has reading this post affected you in any way? Has it given you any new knowledge?

In one week’s time, will you remember any of it?

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

12 thoughts on “Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception (AKA, All Knowledge Isn’t Equal)

  1. I wonder if the overarching moral is if you want attention, adulation, love (or some form of it) – do what’s been done or don’t start a literary journal.

    The Mai 68 events seem sticky compared to the rest, unless this is a Kantalogue.

    We born and bred to gravitate to, sop up, and regurgitate pop culture. Unless one has been brought up without a TV. We are born to love Spielberg, we are born to run away from Bresson.

    1. Actually, I think starting a lit journal could in fact be a great way to garner attention, adulation, etc. You could publish well-known writers, exchange pubs, publish your own work, win good trust, etc. (Not that I think anyone else has ever thought of that, or been motivated by that!)

      And I don’t think that anyone’s born to “run away” from Bresson. Rather, Bresson simply doesn’t exist for a lot of people. I don’t remember ever really having heard about him until 1999, when he died, and there were a lot of articles about him. (I had just started reading Sight and Sound, and there was a memorial issue, I think.)

      Then I remembered having read about Bresson a few years earlier in Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (the analysis of the sound design in A Man Escaped). The name simply hadn’t meant anything to me at the time.

      Then I remembered Godard having praised Balthazar, which I finally watched, and realized starred both Godard’s future wife Anne Wiazemsky as well as Pierre Klossowski. And I’d just started working at Dalkey, and had just started reading some Klossowski—so I had a good way to integrate Bresson into my life. Then I started caring about his work, seeking out his films.

      But even while I was doing that, I wasn’t paying any attention to, say, Béla Tarr, who was a filmmaker I hadn’t even heard about yet. (Maybe I had just started to hear about him; he wouldn’t become important to me until a few years later.)

      Well, the culture does a fine job of giving all of us plenty of things to watch, listen to, do.

      For instance: you love Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Have you ever watched anything by his best friend, Sergei Parajanov? If not…why not? Or, have you seen Chris Marker’s documentary on Tarkovsky? Other films by Marker?

      Or: since you love slower cinema with very long takes—have you watched any Jacques Rivette films? Tsai Ming-Liang films? Pedro Costa films? Straub and Huillet films? And, if not, would it be fair to say that you’re running away from those directors? (I don’t think it would be!)

      I’m not accusing you of anything, mind you. Lord knows, there’s a ton out there I haven’t seen, and don’t know anything about, even though I’m sure I’ve heard about it in passing somewhere. It just hasn’t meant anything to me yet.


    2. A better example: I told you a month or so about Eugene Green, the ultra-post-Bressonian director, one of the few contemporary directors who’s really engaging directly with Bresson’s work. (You’ll recall that I promised to send you a copy of his first feature, Le monde vivant.) I think he’ll interest you greatly, given your love for Bresson.

      Well, did you go see Green’s brand new film, The Portuguese Nun, when it was playing in Manhattan just a few weeks ago? (It might even still be playing somewhere there.)


      …If not, why not? Why are you running away from Eugene Green?! ^_^

      1. I was cheeking about the lit journal.

        Yes Adam, you have been very influential. I’ve seen most of those directors you have mentioned, since you brought them up, including The Hole, half a Rivette (library lost the other half) – I’d seen Marker and that doc. I’m trying to get to the Green film.

        If I use hyperbole, it is only because this is the internet.

        A steady dose of sitcoms and standard Hollywood fair goes a long way toward conditioning one to receive standard Hollywood fair, because there is a template story, the audience has certain expectations, etc. – this I’m taking from, and glossing, Sontag (an essay in Against Interpretation, though I’ve forgotten which).

        I don’t think watching Cheers, The Cosby Show and Moonlighting makes one amenable to getting sweaty for Diary of a Country Priest.

        Your friendly friend,


        1. It is not I who am influential, but the culture who speaks through me. I’m glad you saw that stuff, though, and if you see the Green, I’ll really envy you!

          You’re absolutely right, though, that television encourages passivity, and doesn’t necessarily teach one how to watch other things (although TV viewers are probably more sophisticated than you or I would give them credit for).

          A good friend of mine has a neat idea, which I’ll try to summarize here, though I’ll surely damage it terribly in the process: different media are deeper than others, due to some combination of their information capacity and their history. So, literature is “deeper,” info-wise, than TV, because it’s been around 5000 years and has a vast body that can be at least partially referenced. And printed words are pretty information-dense. Whereas TV has been around 60 years, doesn’t have as much history to reference, and is a pretty information-light medium (judging it purely as an info-delivering channel over time). Video games would be even shallower, having existed for only 30 years or so, and being even less info-dense than TV. And so on.

          And so if you spent 100 hours randomly reading, you’d probably come away better off than spending 100 hours randomly watching TV, or playing random video games (in the abstract; there is of course wretched writing and very good artistic TV and games, of course of course).

          …Well, I find it a compelling line of thought; no doubt it could be developed more rigorously.


          P.S. Moonlighting was pretty sophisticated television—although it’s no Hudson Hawk.

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