Blowing smoke; an origin story

We will launch the web site for Chenla Scopic Press soon if not sooner. This begs the question, what pray tell, is a Scopic Press? The idea goes back a long long ways, from an idea I had when I was in high school that I called a greased pig text. I had become enthralled by encyclopedic narratives such as Joyce's Ulysses, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Melville's Moby Dick and later Gaddis' The Recognitions. I was fascinated by the idea of building a world which was so detailed that, if you tried to focus on any one thing, the surrounding context would swamp it before you could get a firm grip; and poof, just like that, vanish into a lexical cloud leaving an impression but nothing concrete enough to hang your hat on. If you went back and reread that part of the story you'd end up with the same facts but a somewhat different or even conflicting context. It would be a narrative that, like a river, could never be stepped in twice. I worked steadily on this for the better part of a decade but couldn't find a structure that could hold the vast amount of material needed to populate such a monster and hold it together without falling apart or worse – horror of gibbering horrors – coming across as a gimmick. Greased pigs are like that.

In A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari (1976) called this a rhizomatic text which was succinctly summarized by Umberto Eco (1986):

The best image of a net is provided by the vegetable metaphor of the rhizome suggested by Deleuze and Guattari (1976). A rhizome is a tangle of bulbs and tubers appearing like "rats squirming one on top of the other." The characteristics of a rhizomatic structure are the following: (a) Every point of the rhizome can and must be connected with every other point. (b) There are no points or positions in a rhizome: there are only lines (this feature is doubtful: intersecting lines make points). (c) A rhizome can be broken off at any point and reconnected following its own lines. (d) The rhizome is antigenealogical. (e) The rhizome has its own outside with which it makes another rhizome; therefore, a rhizomatic whole has neither outside nor inside. (f) A rhizome is not a calque but an open chart which can be connected with something else in all of its dimensions; it is dismountable, reversible, and susceptible to continual modifications. (g) A network of trees which open in every direction can create a rhizome (which seems to us equivalent to saying that a network of partial trees can be cut out artificially in every rhizome). (h) No one can provide a global description of the whole rhizome; not only because the rhizome is multidimensionally complicated, but also because its structure changes over time.

The corpus of all medieval Arthurian prose-cycles can be thought of as such an organic meta-work, constructed by colorful characters like Sir Thomas Malory, who not so much wrote Le Morte d'Arthur as untangled it from sundry prose cycles such as the French Suite Du Merlin and many others spread over several centuries by scores of authors whose names have mostly been lost to time. Such works were dismissed as being proto or downright bad novels. But as Eugène Vinaver wrote in his very long introduction to his three volume edition of Malory's Works:

Adventures were piled up one upon the other without any apparent sequence or design, and innumerable personages, mostly anonymous, were introduced in wild succession. Every now and then they stop to lay lance in rest and overthrow each other and then swore eternal friendship and rode away. The purpose of their encounters and pursuits was vague, and their tasks were seldom fulfilled: they met and parted and met again, each intent at first on following his particular 'quest', and yet prepared at any time to be diverted from it to other adventures and undertakings. As a result, 'the basic thought became subsidiary, the episode increasingly prominent, the slowing of the action defeated any attempt to reach an end, and the story lost all purpose'. In these words Gustav Gröber described three-quarters of a century ago the methods used by medieval prose writers. But there is a reason to believe that at a much earlier date their methods were condemned on similar grounds, and the often quoted remark of the Canon of Toledo in Don Quixote remains to this day the most characteristic expression of the modern view: 'I have never yet', he says, 'seen a book of chivalry complete in all its parts, so that the middle agrees with the beginning and the end with the beginning and the middle; but they seem to construct their stories with such a multitude of members as though they meant to produce a monster rather than a well-proportioned figure.'

The real question is however, whether neglect of structure in the modern sense of the term necessarily implies the absence of a method of composition. Gröber may have blamed the cyclic works for their lack of a Grundgedanke, and Cervantes may have thought them 'monstrous' because they formed no consistent whole; but it remains to be seen whether the criteria of a Grundgedanke or of a 'well-proportioned figure' are not in this case misleading, and whether behind the apparent deformity and incoherence of the prose romances there is not to be found an architectural design so unlike our own conception of a story that we inevitably fail to perceive it….

Perhaps the easiest way to discover the nature and the working of this device is to draw an analogy with the technique of tapestry. Just as in a tapestry each thread alternates with an endless variety of others, so in the early prose romances of the Arthurian group numerous seemingly independent episodes or 'motifs' are interwoven in a manner which makes it possible for each episode to be set aside at any moment and resumed later. No single stretch of such a narrative can be complete in itself any more than a stitch in a woven fabric; the sequel may appear at any moment, however long the interval. But the resemblance goes no further, for unlike the finished tapestry a branch of a prose romance has as a rule no natural conclusion; when the author brings it to a close he simply cuts the threads at arbitrarily chosen points, and anyone who choosed to pick them up and interweave them in a similar fashion can continue the work indefinitely.

Eventually I came across the idea of hypertext, in the form of Vannevar Bush's Memex (1945), Douglas Engelbart's groundbreaking work on the augmented knowledge worker and Ted Nelson's Xanadu which laid the groundwork for what would become the World Wide Web. Clearly this could provide a possible solution.

In 1990 I got sidelined by starting Huge Net, the second Internet service provider in Hong Kong, and each project after led to another and one country led to yet another. But in hindsight each project was collecting piece by piece the infrastructure needed to complete my original concept.

It was relatively recently that I realized that Yellow Brick Road (YBR), as it is envisioned, is exactly what I was trying to build back in the late 70's in the basement of my parent's house on an old IBM Selectric typewriter. The only difference is that YBR is non-fiction. I often tell people that YBR is a thirty year project that I'm now twenty years into. But in a very real sense I have been working on this for more than forty-five years. In truth I never stopped.

The Scopic Press is where all of that accumulated infrastructure is coming together as both an open platform and as a more down to earth traditional press. We will publish traditional books. In fact our first title, Ashes from Annam, is very much a traditional book which we are proud to play our small part in helping to bring into the world. But in another sense, such sensible publications are a smoke screen; stage craft that obscures the sheer madness of what we are building behind the billowing white clouds issuing from the chunks of dry ice bubbling in battered coffee cans beside the deafening acoustic bombardment blasting from the bank of Marshall stacks at the front of the stage. Greased pigs are like that too.

Refs & Rabbit Holes

  • Bush, V., As we may think, The atlantic monthly, 176(1), 101–108 (1945).
  • Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F., A Thousand Plateaus (2004), : Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Eco, U., Semiotics and the philosophy of language (1986), : Indiana University Press.
  • Gaddis, W., The recognitions (2012), : Dalkey Archive Press.
  • Malory, S. T., & Vinaver, E., The works of sir thomas malory, ed (1967), : Clarendon Press.
  • Melville, H., & Parker, H., Moby-Dick (2017), : W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Pynchon, T., Gravity’s rainbow (penguin classics deluxe edition) (2006), : Penguin Classics.
  • Joyce, J., Ulysses (2000), : Penguin Books.