Notional Slurry redivivus

✍ April 2, 2014

From the Editor’s Table

What makes a “project”? Not, “What makes a project succeed?” or, “What makes a project interesting?”, but rather: What makes a project out of all the stuff going on in the world?

The basest consensus—at least among my ilk—is that projects are purposive efforts, gatherings of will and attention towards some unfulfilled goal. In the more agile sub-ilk, “goal” is understood to be contingent and performative. We strive and improve, but it is only when we taste and smell the thing in hand, feel the texture of what’s been made so far, and sense what Pickering refers to as the partially-finished thing’s “resistance” that we are provoked to understand what the next goal should be. Eliding the word “software” for a moment to make a broader claim, let me say that in a more agile project we move forward by making and releasing “working”… project stuff (whatever)…, but then “release” and use and reflect upon each increment as it emerges, until some “next step” forward becomes apparent.

(It sounds a bit like “paying attention” and “living mindfully”, doesn’t it?)

In either case, a project seems to be a sort of narrative of work. A project with One Big Plan stakes the coherent vision of the planner against the possibility that the world (and the thing, once part of the world) hasn’t been conspiring for its part to throw up some kind of Big Resistance of its own (like for instance being beyond our skill). The project with an Agile Plan hedges against that risk (and even some unknown unknowns) with the sense that there ought to be something of value in there somewhere, where “there” is a pile of features we might call “plot elements”, and “something” is expected more to be a feature that is reachable by us as opposed to an idealized and optimal abstraction.

Maybe it would be fun to say that agile projects work more like well-run storytelling games; more waterfallish projects work more like… well, the way people imagine “science” or “art” work, with Muses and planning and Great Insight Brought to Fruition.

But we leave a series of unvisited possibilities in any narrative, don’t we? Whether we plan it all out up front, or try a bit and see what happens and repeat the cycle often, we don’t ever try to do everything. It doesn’t feel as though there can be such a thing as a “narrative” that preserves all decisions and unexplored possibilities along the way. It’d be really boring for one thing, and super overlappy, and eventually combinatorics would mash it up into a big pile of words that aren’t even describing differentiable “events” or “plans” of any sort any more. “We can do A or B, so let’s do both, and then once A is done we can do C or D on that, but once B is done we can do D or E or F on that. And then for AC we can…” and so forth.

A plan is a narrowing of ways. And right now I can hear my friend Ron saying, “Well, duh. So?” Well, Imaginary Ron, “So?” is fighting me. Let’s see where we get to.

Say each step in a plan is a decision, and thus a leaving behind of at least one alternative way—trivially consisting of what “would have happened” by not doing that next increment of work, and also factoring in all the other work one might have done instead. At each step. Visualize “you (following a plan)” as a walk along one path in some vast invisible narrative tree (or directed acyclic graph, or maybe just directed graph), stepping stage to stage when you make changes.

Now you know I squint at things a bit more than I should. And when I squint at “What is a project?” it starts to feel a bit like “What is art?” If—and I know people who would argue against this, and that’s OK—there can be found art, can there by analogy be found projects?

This morning I’m squinting this into being: I’ll guess that in any ongoing project you and I can agree there was some prior step. I think this is especially true when we break our work down into “releases” or “drafts” or even “milestones”, and consider as “steps” all the many places we sit and focus our attention on the work-in-progress, looking at it as a whole. Each time we invite it to talk to us, every time we intuit that it’s “not quite right”, that we sensed a change had to be made. Each time we individuated the thing out of all the other stuff going on in the real world, out of our experiences, memories and habits.

We’re comfortable with a “step” being a well-defined object. Let me make what might feel like a little uncomfortable jump now: What kind of a thing is an anthology, in this context? What is the “writing project” of text book composed of readings and extracts? Where are the pieces of a project to make a Girl Talk track, or a Schwitters collage, or a Burroughs cut-up?

If I’m permitted to define a project as a plan unfolding, and a plan as a series of decisions made and thus narrowed, then what is the project work done in literary criticism? More to the point, how can there be “history projects”? What is a project in satire or politics? What determines the logic of the “steps” in a statistics project, or in bioinformatics?

And of course what we want to say is this: The critic, the historian, the collagist, the photographer, the statistician, and all the rest (flag that for reconsideration) apply the same skills and habits of mind we use when we consider a project we are working on, and which is already in progress. But they apply it to the world on hand for them—to an intentionally-assembled collection of magazines, or to a dataset they’ve been emailed, or to a tube full of DNA, or to the news—some world-stuff thing already well-labeled as a thing-in-itself by others. And then they undertake to work on that communicatively. Unfolding a new narrative from the same raw materials (raw as they get, at least… and flag that as well) the “original” used.

These are projects (narrowings of possibilities, narratives in progress) that like all projects and narratives direct our attention to new objects made in the world, against the background of roiling stuff. It is in a sense the same kind of attention we might bring to bear if we were involved in the project ourselves, factoring in our personal experiences, memories and habits. The attention we pay when we listen to a song, read a novel, consider a chart: aesthetically, it’s the consideration of what next.

Being interesting is wrapped up so tightly in that ball of cognition that I don’t even want to try to tease it out right now. But it’s in there: attention and interestingness bouncing off one another in such subtle ways, with habit mediating the whole. That’s sciencey, artsy, newsy and criticismy… and all the rest.

I hope to (flag that, too) come back to that a lot in the coming months.

But can there be “found projects”? Most Makers among us will hesitate, because of course when you’re Making you’re living right there on the Big Invisible Graph making decisions all the time, and I know I personally can’t help but imagine that this project only exists in the single forward direction I’m taking it, and that anyway because I’m Creative and Original the stuff I’m doing must be way far off on the Big Graph from anything anybody else would consider useful—in any context—and also, if it is getting a bit crowded around here, then: Hell, get your own project, you damned copycat.

But over the last 20 years I’ve been writing, I seem to stitch together a few basic flavors every time I set out to cook something new:

Charlie Fort and what he writes at the beginning of Lo!: “If there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”

And that diversity is important, and as a result that each narrative written around the same components creates value not because it reinforces the earlier ones, but only where it breaks and contradicts and resists the story being told at large.

And also what I call “Rorty’s Wager”: that—while it can be no more true than any other thing is “true”—by our current standards, we are collectively best to one another when we act as though the world is real, and that it also doesn’t give a damn what stories we tell about it, and when we also realize that the stories we tell are all we have of the world, individually and collectively.

Distill that down? OK: The small things help people more, because more people can see more places to slot small things into their lives productively. And any small thing, considered thoughtfully, can thus be of use. A useful project can be made from any stuff. What you find, what you’ve already done, what you’ve “invented”: any thing that anybody can pay attention to.

The weave is all that counts.

So I have a plan.

In the next few days I’ll claw back all the random ephemera and half-finished “work” I’ve posted online in the last 25 years, and stitch together the stories that are there, in that pile, now and in this context. In the next few months I’ll stack up all the unregarded books and magazines I’ve scanned and digitized, and stitch together the stories that are there, in that pile, now and in this new context. In the next few years I’ll stack up all the unexplored notebooks and ideas for science and mathematics projects that I’ve accumulated in little cramped handwriting and in other people’s published works, and stitch together the stories that are there… now and in this new context.

Goin’ for a new walk in the Big Invisible Graph. Writing stuff down, half-finished stuff, but also tearing and re-weaving. Drawing attention. Throwing attention around willy-nilly, even.

Hopefully in a useful way.

Q: Where are the articles? A: Being sorted. ¶ Q: Still? A: There are many articles. ¶ Q: What about the material that was here before? A: Here’s a piece to read for the moment. It’ll be a day or two; there are several thousand to sort.