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W.I.K.I. (Joshua Cohen)

Par Joshua Cohen
Publié par Marion Coste le 20/12/2019

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Every year, the English-speaking writers invited to the Assises Internationales du Roman write the definition of a word of their choice.


What. I. Know. Is.

What I Know Is: I would like to address the topic of knowledge in the novel.

What I Know Is: That to address the topic of knowledge in the novel is also to address the topic of knowledge outside the novel.

What I Know Is: This is inevitable, going outside.

What I Know Is: The seasons are changing.

What I Know Is: A “wiki” is a site that is collaboratively created by its users.

What I Know Is: I found this out online.

What I Know Is: My search for the definition of the word “wiki” took all of .54 of a second, though my reading of the search results took longer (took so much longer that it’s still ongoing).

There is a lesson to be derived from this.

Now more than ever we must insist on differentiating between being able to know something and actually knowing it.

This difference can be calculated in time.  

But not only in time. And the difference doesn’t have to be calculated.

What I Know Is: Sometime in the spring of 2007, a friend of mine was traveling in Germany and, after visiting me in Berlin, made a pilgrimage—as is customary for Americans, and for Jews, and I’m sure for many other types of people—to the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp, near Weimar. Writing me about the experience once he’d returned to the States, he said he’d found the exhibitions at Buchenwald to be “painstakingly accurate and tasteful.”

What I Know Is: About a decade later I was back in the States myself and sleepless and struggling to write an obituary of Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-language, Germany-residing Nobelist, and a survivor of the Buchenwald camp. In the course of my research I made a pilgrimage—as is customary for journalists on deadline—to the Buchenwald wiki, which described the postwar renovation of the camp into a memorial and museum as having been “painstakingly accurate and tasteful.” In other words, the wiki for Buchenwald—in the edit by a user named Redactosaurus—described Buchenwald in the very same words as did my friend.

What I Know Is: There are only four conclusions to come to: 1) Either my friend read the wiki and unconsciously plagiarized its description, or 2) my friend read the wiki and consciously plagiarized its description, or 3) my friend wrote the wiki and so was merely plagiarizing himself, under the username Redactosaurus, or—the last conclusion—4) given the ten-year gap between identical quotations, this was all just a very strange coincidence.

What I Know Is: “Painstakingly accurate and tasteful.”

What I Know Is: Strange.

I never know whom to trust.

And I can’t help but wonder whether you trust any of what I’ve just told you.

What I Know Is: I now have the same mistrust for news that I used to have for novels.

What I Know Is: Technology has made both more “unreliable.”

All books today are digitized—at least all books that are written today are digitized, novels very much included. They’re lumped into the matrices with all the other content. “A piece of prose is a piece of prose is a piece of prose,” as Gertrude Stein might, or might not, have written, depending on what site you read.

Contemporary scholars, then, with just the click of a key, can tell you which German or Hungarian or Holocaust survivor or YA author uses the most adjectives, or adverbs, per sentence, per paragraph, on average, or when split infinitives were a thing, or not a thing, in Anglo-American prose (by women of color, whose first editions sold over ten thousand copies). The study of novels, especially, is becoming, or has already become, the study of data. Every Dickens novel has been mined. Every Dickens character described as having a very short nose, or a very long nose, or a very twisted nose, has been tagged. Deconstruction—unconscious betrayal, or betrayal by the unconscious—is for the microchips now.

That said, it’s also a fact that novelists have access to the same tools as do the academics, and can act preemptively in their own defense. Novelists can search through their own texts and eliminate repetitions, fixations, manias—they, we, can obliterate our own subliminal thoughts in the hopes of forestalling the psychologizing of readers intent not on pleasure but on profiling.

This double act—the academic or critic using technology to drill into the psyche of the writer, the writer using the same technology to frustrate that drilling—results in a curious double bind: Who, here, is doing the censoring?

If I know that all of my words might one day not be read consecutively, or even read at all, but merely treated as an etymological, syntactical, and grammatical, tranche, to be analyzed and monetized by search algorithms, wouldn’t the honorable response be to try to sabotage that system and write against its parameters—which is to say, to plagiarize, or not to write at all?


Pour citer cette ressource :

Joshua Cohen, "W.I.K.I. (Joshua Cohen)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), décembre 2019. Consulté le 21/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/joshua-cohen-w-i-k-i