The means of conception

Nothing odd will do long. ‘Tristram Shandy’ did not last.
Samuel Johnson

Wrong! — I gleefully thought, way back when I was slogging through an eighteenth century literature class in college — bored silly by Johnson’s lumbering, moralizing, psuedo-Oriental Rasselas, and, in contrast, completely delighted by Lawrence Sterne’s goofy carnival of the mind, Tristram Shandy. Wrong, you fat old authoritative Dr. Johnson, because here I am 220 years later savoring every Rabelaisian joke, every self-conscious pratfall, every typographic stunt of Tristram Shandy.

I had to admire the concision of the put-down, though. A quick slam of the sprawling, irresolute Shandy.

With the wisdom of age, I now am ready to concede that Johnson was half-right: nothing odd does “do” for long. Especially online. I’ll circle back to that emphasis in a moment — but first, let me submit that Tristram Shandy is far from odd, considered rightly. Part of the thrill of reading it in 1980-something *cough* was seeing evidence of postmodern friskiness that actually pre-dated the United States. Tristram’s obsessions stretched reflexivity back into exotically distant realms of bygone minutia (unlike the broad cardboard exoticism of Johnson’s Happy Valley). It seems that then, as well as now(-ish), conceptions were improbable, resolutions impossible; the world teemed with distraction, neurosis, and disordered influence; and authors invited readers to play games.

In fact, if we glance back at a couple of Tristram‘s more infamous tricks, we might feel that Sterne’s techniques are getting less odd by the day. When our author despairs at describing the concupiscible Widow Wadman, and throws open his pages to the reader (here’s paper ready to your hand. — Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—and unlike your wife as your conscience will let you…) — is this not collaborative authoring space?

Tristram Shandy blank page

And when the narrator, picking up momentum by way of a vegitable [sic] diet, sits down and charts out the loopy plot lines of the novel as it’s progressed so far, even dropping in anchor points so we can check his graph against designated passages — is this not, however tongue-in-cheek, metadata visualization, or a mapping of information flow?

Tristram Shandy plotlines

L–d! said my mother, what is all this story about? —-
A COCK and a BULL , said Yorick —- And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.

Indeed, and though I haven’t read it (which is to hear it) for, well, many years, Tristram sticks with me–probably because I prefer open concoction to moralistic bullying, especially when it comes to narration. And this preference has had currency for a long time; Tristram Shandy has lasted just fine.

Yet Johnson’s other snap judgment — nothing odd will do long — seems to me all the more true in the virtual places we increasingly come crowding for intelligence. Which is not to say that there aren’t odd things online — far from it — surf randomly, and the web seems a veritable cacophony of twaddle diddle, tweddle diddle, –twiddle diddle, —- twoddle diddle, –twuddle diddle, —- prut-trut — krish –krash — krush. Not to mention diddle diddle, diddle diddle, diddle diddle — hum — dum — drum.

But nothing odd does much online: you can park the most esoteric idiosyncratic wonderfully strange material on the web, but if you want it to get discovered, if you want it to work, if you want it to have an effect — if you want others to conceive of it (a favorite Shandyword) — then you must enter into common language and assumptions. This is so obvious it’s practically a truism — and yet see how many times we learn the lesson, how difficult it is to get out of our own heads.

Two quick, fairly pedestrian examples: John Kupersmith’s wonderful Library Terms that Users Understand shows how befuddled users can be by the simplest failure of librarians to realize that words like “Index” or “Database” or “Serial” can mean next to nothing to my Uncle Toby, just wanting to know where to find that Popular Mechanics article. Or let’s say you’ve given an OPAC a cute acronym and now you invite my Uncle Toby to “search EUNICE!” My poor uncle Toby blush’d.

Or have a look at Dan Cohen’s equally simple but solid advice about climbing up in Google ranks. Search engine optimization has its share of murk to it, but the basic path to visibility is: don’t be odd. Use a domain name that describes your resource (“chinook” or “aeoleus” sound great — but what are you airing?), use keywords in file names (with mod_rewrites, if necessary), get linked by highly linked sites (meaning, be understandable, and get understood by a widely understood site).

If this all sounds like it leads to a world as flat and predictable as, well, Johnson’s Rasselas, that’s not what I meant, not at all. It’s just that you can’t be *merely* odd or unique if you want to *do*: you need the sophistication to hook into conventional terms, general assumptions, broadly shared expectations. This involves a double-motion that might as well be called self-consciousness. Tristram‘s greatness is showing us how fun such contrivance can be. Sterne earns his pleasure (and ours too, he’s brought us jolting right along with him) when he sits back to marvel at himself, his magnificently clashing agendas: By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, — and at the same time.

If it were all digression, Johnson would have been completely right about Tristram Shandy. But it is progressive too, which means that it sobers up just enough to realize, despite its irrepressible uniqueness, that above all things in the world, ’tis one of the silliest things in one of them, to darken your hypothesis by placing a number of tall, opake words, one before another, in a right line, betwixt your own and your readers conception.

Hogarth's frontpiece to Tristram Shandy

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