By Andrew C. Wenaus
Information theory is not concerned with meaning; instead, it focuses on the relationships that emerge between pattern and noise. The asemic quality of mathematical information guarantees any number of semantic patterns spontaneously becoming manifest as a result of unpredictable mathematical reconfigurations. For a communications system, the goal is to make sure that the source of a signal (the original message) and the received message are as identical to one another as possible. But why open an interview with Henry Adam Svec and his Volkskunderoman (folklore novel) Life Is Like Canadian Football and Other Authentic Folk Stories with a primer on information theory? The title might imply kitschy Canadiana tinged with Ludditism: a fun but pungent book you might find amid decade-old magazines in a campground’s check-in lodge. The title, though, is a provocation; and the first line of its introduction—“To partake in the collection of folk song is to partake in the communication of the real”—suggests a very different kind of book you might find while camping. In fact, Svec’s novel scintillates and is many things at once: a memoir, autofiction, critifiction, postmodern metafiction, material hypertext, archivism, museology, academic essay, experimental literature, political agitation, and so on. Consider the first two sentences of the book’s blurb on Svec’s Invisible Publishing author page: “Henry Adam Svec has been pushing boundaries in Canadian folklore since he unearthed songs by CFL players in Library and Archives Canada, thereby thrusting himself into the scene—and the media spotlight. Those spartan poems are finally included in this anthology, in addition to the fruits of his subsequent expeditions, but there is much more besides, including honest accounts of the folklorist’s myriad trials and tribulations.” This is followed by some unconventional comparisons: Alan Lomax with Vladimir Nabokov and Elizabeth Smart, Stompin’ Tom with Mark Z. Danielewski and Chris Kraus. The blurb, notably, is under a bold heading: “a grossly inaccurate ‘mémoire’ about Canadian folk legends.” It is grossly inaccurate because all the genre-mixing takes place under a broader category: the literary hoax, or as Svec prefers, the literary tall tale.
The following is a conversation Svec and I had during the early summer of 2022 after coincidentally running into one another while fishing for pickerel on Lac La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan. Both men died on the trip. However, as admirers of Mikhail Bakhtin and the carnivalesque, both decided to be reborn in order to complete the interview. The following is based on audio recorded on Canadian Broadcast Company-supplied portable microphone and tape device and has been edited for clarity and length.
Andrew C. Wenaus: Henry, it’s a pleasure to talk with you about your recent novel, Life Is Like Canadian Football and Other Authentic Folk Songs.
Henry Adam Svec: Thanks for reading it!
Wenaus: As a way of jumping into things, would you say a few words about the impulse to write this novel? What compelled you to write it and, specifically, what informs your choice to, at once, provide such an innocuous, Canadiana-style title to a work of theory fiction that seems to launch a birdshot assault on many basic assumptions about narrative: authorship, authenticity, identity, folk nationalism, folk music, folk heroes and sports, artificial intelligence, electronic literature, autobiography, and critifiction or theory fiction; and the list goes on. The forking of the title from its content is a full-on assault on so many assumptions about literature; yet, the whole endeavor feels especially geared toward a particular investigation into a manufactured and internationally imported idea of Canada. Would you say a few words about your thinking here?
Svec: Although it took a long time to find the voice of the text and a balance between the various genres incorporated, I believe that the title was settled on, more or less, pretty early. The narrator is aware he is publishing a book, so the title is written “in character”; and I thought he’d want it to sound like other classic texts in the field, which do tend to have a blunt, descriptive sincerity about them. But, as you note, “Henry” is not a nationalist, despite his vocation, and he marks his anthology not as “authentic Canadian folk songs” but as “authentic folk songs” more universally, one of which happens to be called “Life Is Like Canadian Football.” I also just thought it was funny; and I liked the idea of a title functioning as lure or sleight of hand, since this is not, it turns out, your usual folk song anthology. As for the initial impulse for the book, I guess I have long been fascinated by the image of the folkloristic field phonographer—often an artist-scholar of sorts, navigating both governmental bureaucracies and cultural markets, making work with the help of both human informants and machinic collaborators—and I have kept coming back to it in both creative and scholarly projects.
Wenaus: I first read the novel on an airplane; then again when I got home. Both times, I laughed out loud. Comedy has endless functions. One function that always sticks with me is the way our laughter can reveal biases; another is the way we often laugh as a way to buffer anxiety or discomfort. Would you share a couple words about the humor in this novel?
Svec: I’m glad you found it funny. As a performer—aside from a brief period of being very serious in my early twenties—I have always found laughter to be the most you can hope for, really, and as a reader and audience member too. But for me comedy is more than just a genre or mode: it’s a whole attitude to life. Laughter blurs and explodes lines, like the one between performing and being, for example, or between folklore and farce. I must have learned this from Mikhail Bakhtin’s book on the carnival, where he also explores (folk) laughter as a challenge to authority figures, of which there are several in my novel too.
Wenaus: Let’s get to the juicy stuff. The book is partially a literary hoax. The CFL Sessions have no historical basis. The book’s lore—centered around the archived audio recordings of folk songs, written and sung by former Canadian Football League sports heroes, curated by (the imagined) Canadian folklorist Staunton R. Livingston—is likewise fictional. The whole getup is a ruse. Or, well, only partially so. In their book Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Authenticity, Christopher L. Miller writes that “a hoax is a metafiction, a fiction about fiction. It is designed not merely to tell a story, but to weave a lie around that story: a lie about the story’s status, its origins, its authenticity, and mostly, its authorship.” At a historical moment when the pretenses of identity, “lived experience,” nationhood, and authentic expression appear to be central to the literary mode de jour, this novel complicates essentialist claims and representations of all sorts. Franco “Bifo” Berardi suggests that identity is a useless and dangerous game, a limitation, or even an untrustworthy curation of the flow of memories: identity, authorship, authenticity, and so on, are metafictions in their own right with no objective, verifiable referent in the empirical sense. Is there something similar going on in your thinking? Or, are you approaching this from a different angle?
Svec: Authenticity is a construct. But, even if it’s a “dangerous game,” it’s one we can’t help playing, it seems, and it’s been that way for a while, at least since the rise of Romanticism. You could say that discourses of authenticity are themselves hoaxes, but “hoax” also has connotations of magic and wonder. The mid-century North American folk revivalists may seem to us now to have been hopelessly naïve for their understanding of authenticity, but I love their commitment and idealism, and I also love a lot of the music, so my take on the “hoax” is a bit different from other parodic or satirical sendups, like Christopher Guest’s films or the Yes Men. But, yes, I think that hoaxes and similar sorts of text or performance can work as inherently defamiliarizing, because they often force us to question aspects of culture and communication that previously may have been invisible.
Wenaus: Can I bum a dart off you? I don’t have any cash with me, but I can e-transfer it later.
Svec: Here you go.
Wenaus: Okay, back to it. Given this, would you say that the work is more about questioning than confrontation with the concept of authenticity?
Svec: I think that’s fair to say. But maybe the “Henry” in the book is a bit behind my own thinking in that regard. He is more faithful yet.
Wenaus: On the one hand, Life Is Like Canadian Football is a book about fiction that is partially fictional; on the other hand, it is a book about authorship, also partially fictional. There’s nothing in the book that suggests that it is a hoax (I was stoked about Livingston AI…only to learn that it wasn’t quite true). This was not simply a one-off project; you had toured the songs, written related academic work, gave talks and performances as if this were historically factual, and so on. When did its status as a hoax get publicized? And, when it did, how did people respond?
Svec: Back in 2009, I had not initially intended The CFL Sessions to be a hoax per se, but it ended up working that way in certain situations; and I sort of ran with it in a couple interviews with journalists. As I see it, performers on actual stages cannot be hoaxers. I mean, notice the stage! I was doing something more theatrical and maybe conceptual than one usually expects from a singer-songwriter, however, and so there were instances of miscommunication, even when, later on, I was presenting in theatres and art galleries too. The codes and conventions of popular music are strong. I suppose the websites I made, in character, had something to do with the cloudy reception as well. Anyway, the hoax is definitely something that I have continued to think about in my transition to novelist and academic, whether the book is a hoax or not. And it became interestingly complicated because I had been doing these musical iterations for so many years: thus, during some stretches of the writing, I approached the text as a real memoir by a hoax artist whose imaginative work has somehow become reality. I mean, what would the high-octane, funhouse version of my memoir look like if Livingston had existed? The result is a tangled web. Even though it says “fiction” on the copyright page, the reader probably oscillates between belief and suspicion over the course of the book—I oscillated myself—and one footnote even encourages the discarding of the “fiction” label on the copyright page. Plus, there are real songs in there, written by real people other than me, like Laura Barrett and Ron Leary, which I technically did collect. But maybe “tall tale” is a better fit than “hoax,” as the former is a form of folklore, whereas the latter usually implies an intention to deceive. Outright deception was not my primary interest or objective with the project as a whole, though it did happen, and was sometimes fun if also sometimes stressful. People don’t always enjoy the feeling of having been tricked.
Wenaus: Authenticity is predicated on origins. But, your novel inverts the directionality of the authentic. Rather than seek a pristine instance in a prelapsarian past, Life Is Like Canadian Football seeks the authentic in the future. The past cannot be accessed; it can only be retrieved from an archive bound up with the present. Like the multi-leveled narrative realities in the book, the authentic here becomes an aggregate of nested procedures, practices, processualisms, memories, and imaginings tumbling toward new configurations.
Svec: Well, an important aspect of authenticity to recall is that it is an idea. Ideas are made by us, and we can make new ones if we want, and update older versions. Charles Taylor argues that we should hold onto authenticity, keeping in mind that the concept allows us to have important kinds of conversations and debates, and I agree. This is where authenticity in my book stretches into different directions than, for instance, A Mighty Wind might have taken it.
Wenaus: [Revived. Clears throat.] Speaking of the future, readers who buy a book called Life Is Like Canadian Football might be surprised to see that the book looks forward and backward simultaneously: there’s a promise of time-sanctioned authenticity and nostalgia yet the book also engages information theory quite a bit. Claude Shannon posited that a general communication system consists of five parts: the information source, the transmitter, the channel, the receiver, and the destination. The information source is that “which produces a message or sequence of messages to be communicated to the receiving terminal.” The transmitter “operates on the message in some way to produce a signal suitable for transmission over the channel.” The channel is the medium between the transmitter and receiver: a set of wires, radio band frequencies, the algorithms between your keyboard and word processor, or a wi-fi signal. Next, “the receiver,” Shannon explains, “ordinarily performs the inverse operation of that done by the transmitter, reconstructing the message from the signal”; the receiver’s function is to reconfigure the signal into something as similar to the source as possible. While this is all a bit complex, the least predictable part is destination. The destination is, basically, “the person…for whom the message is intended.” Why information theory? And is there a special emphasis on the receiver? Or, are you interested in the whole configuration? Are you asking the reader to not simply delimit the information they receive and, instead, eschew functionality for investigation?
Svec: [Revived. Dusts ectoplasm off jacket.] I am sympathetic to the important cultural studies critiques of information theory, some of which are even cited in the novel, but I am interested in the pragmatic utility of the Shannon-Weaver model that has been demonstrated, not just in the areas of information engineering and digital media design, but also by the wide acceptance achieved in mainstream thinking about communication. “Henry” is a graduate student in communication studies, so this Shannon-Weaver model is just something he is required to explore; and like the CFL songs he rediscovers—which, on the other hand, are not canonical at all—the model seeps into his consciousness. However, although he inherits some of the terms and metaphors of information theory, I think that, thanks to his weird combination of influences, he ends up somewhere beyond Shannon and Weaver where, yes, the landing of a message onto a destination by way of a signal and channel and code—sort of like a missile or a perfectly designed football play—is not the only way of understanding the act of communication. It’s not incorrect, because it works, but it’s not the end of the story. Another way of putting it is that, in the book, all of those components are significant, and maybe one role for art and literature (including folk song anthologies, real or not) is to build new relationships between them, or to build new components entirely. For Shannon, the problem of sending had been first and foremost. But you’re right: unlike some other hoax artists, if that’s what I am, I definitely show faith here in the reader or receiver.
Wenaus: How did you go from Staunton R. Livingston to LIVINGSTON™? Of course, both are fictional, but going from a fictional curator to a fictional artificial intelligence named after a fictional curator is both provocative and hilarious. Can you talk a bit more about how you took this jangling and rattling of reality to another level of remove? What provoked the invention of LIVINGSTON™ and how early on was this idea part of the project? Is there (or will there be) a LIVINGSTON™ that’ll appear as part of this project?
Svec: Livingston was a sideman at the start, as phonographer of the CFL Sessions, but over the years he evolved into a guru or even white-whale figure for Henry. Given Livingston’s apparent interest in anonymous and collective cultural production, the idea of an imaginary digital archive seemed like a logical direction to take the tradition. And there was something endearing about Henry becoming more and more committed to Livingston, and the Livingstonian Method, especially considering that Livingston seems not to have written anything down. (What kind of influence could this be?) But there are real analogues to LIVINGSTON™ in the history of North American folk music. Alan Lomax’s final years were spent trying to build a multimedia archive called the Global Jukebox, which he thought might be used in schools and serve as an organic, global repository. So, the digital computer legitimately has a place in the history of folk-song collection as well.
Wenaus: Electronic literature is sometimes used to describe literature that is generated by/with computers and (often) also read using computers. Were you thinking about “electronic literature” when creating LIVINGSTON™? If so, how did this play into questions of authorship? Reader reception? Authenticity? Print culture in the twenty-first century?
Svec: The possibility that literature (or, here, folk-song anthologization) has undergone a paradigm shift via digitization has been of interest to me. However, I think that my relationship to electronic literature has more to do with content than form in this case, since I’ve written a book, with a first page and a last one, and, hopefully, a place on an actual shelf in a library somewhere. And publishing a durable book per se is what Henry himself is aspiring to do. But, yes, what happens when the author-function that Foucault wrote about disappears or dissolves into something else, through new forms of collaboration? How might we come into a text differently when we believe it was, not written by an author, but generated by a machine who has the unique ability to see and hear everything all at once? I thought about these questions as Henry and Mirek began to build their machine—and as I incorporated actual songs written by others (with their permission) into “my” text. Still, I believe in the book, or books, in general.
Wenaus: Electronic literature is generally considered postmodern. Jessica Pressman, in Digital Modernism, has commented on the modernist quality of digital texts and electronic literature. Digital modernism invites close readings, seeks validation from the past, and is self-reflexive in the sense that it investigates and assesses the status and value of literature (digital or print) in the digital and information age. In this sense, she suggests that some digital texts are less postmodern (that they do not invite interactivity) and instead offer a strategy of renovation to validate newness in the twenty-first century. Life Is Like Canadian Football feels like it is both at once: modernist and postmodernist. I realize that the modernism/postmodernism distinction is leaky and Swiss cheese-like, but I’m wondering how you might situate this novel (and larger project) within the cultural and artistic shifts that seem to be taking place in the twenty-first century.
Svec: Sometimes I have trouble categorizing my favorite writers in terms of modernism versus postmodernism. For instance, is Borges a modernist or a postmodernist? I think that the intertextuality, and the footnotes, and some of the thematic foci (authenticity, inscription) of Life Is Like Canadian Football and Other Authentic Folk Songs connect with postmodern literary traditions. I also wanted there to be a story that was fun and entertaining, which perhaps signals a lack of faith, on my part, in art’s ability or need to transcend “lowly” popular culture. But Henry’s purpose, according to his intro, is to build knowledge in the field of folklore, a task that he takes quite seriously and which he more or less achieves according to the terms set out. He wants to show something that has not yet been shown, to make the first authentic folk song collection, and this feels like a modernist or even Romantic impulse. Maybe it’s a postmodernist text in which a story of a modernist “artist” is told? Or a modernist text reckoning with forces and structures of the postmodern condition? I’m not sure. Is an author responsible for answering such questions? I could ask LIVINGSTON™?
Svec: [Inputs keystrokes into his smartphone.]
Wenaus: [Waits. Eyes up pack of cigarettes. Considers. Waits.]
Svec: I’m having trouble connecting.[The two men notice another boat approaching; it appears to be helmed by a gang of mummers. They’re dancing.]
Svec: A mummers’ dance.
Wenaus: I think that’s our cue.[A shepherd’s crook slowly emerges from the woods, extending a high contrast shadow-beam across the muskeg, until gliding a few above the glassy lake towards Wenaus and Svec’s boat. The crook’s handle appears to be at least 758 meters long.]
Svec: [Notices shepherd’s crook. Puts phone away.]
Wenaus: It was a pleasure speaking with you today, Henry.
Svec: Thanks for helping to spread the word.