An Interview with Jonathan Ball

Colin Smith: Jonathan, you preface your book-length poem Ex Machina with a quote from the Victorian satiric novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler: “Man’s very soul is due to the machines, it is a machine-made thing: he thinks as he thinks, and feels as he feels, through the work that machines have wrought upon him, and their existence is quite as much a sine qua non for his, as his for theirs.”

Given that most everything in Butler’s anthropological quest is either a surreal distortion or logical inversion of social life during his times, and that both you and Butler use a meas­ured, affectless line or style, are you setting up readers to understand that they might need to bring impossible levels of irony to your text?

I’m considering here that, as funny as it is, Ex Machina takes on some pretty weighty and grim matters, as it investigates (to no conclusion whatsoever) what might stand as godly, human, and machine consciousness — particularly as they interpolate one another.

Could irony be escape hatch or complication here? Both? Other?

Jonathan Ball: I haven’t thought too much about the “interpolation” that occurs here, but of course in the mathematical sense of that word I am proposing just such a method of constructing new (imaginary) data points within the already discrete set. This is the basic pataphysical move in Ex Machina. In keeping with Alfred Jarry’s “imaginary science” (as described by poet Christian Bök, in his underrated Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science), I’ve proceeded from what on the surface seems like an absurd notion (that we are the reproductive organs of poems, or perhaps of Richard Dawkins–esque “memes”), and that poetry might thus be considered a parasitic type (domain? kingdom? class?) of organism. Extending that logic into the basis of a fragmentary philosophical system, described implicitly and to some degree enacted through the reader’s collation of the poetic “materials” in the book (namely, through recombination of the poetic lines), is, in essence, what gives the book any structure and vitality it might contain.

Rather, my thinking has revolved around a similar-sounding word, “interpellation” — how have these books, these machines, these manifest thoughts, addressed themselves to us in the Althusserian sense, in ways that constitute our subjectivities? I choose that quote from Erewhon as my epigraph because it speaks to the question at the heart of Ex Machina: How have machines changed what it means to be human? It’s obvious to see how such a question holds relevance in the case of the cyborg, or as we grapple with the actuality of technologies that make possible cloning and genetic modification. But less obvious is the relevance of this question in the case of a machine such as a book — or even your eyeglasses — a thing that has a discrete physical manifestation, apart and away from us, rather than being spliced into our genes. However, books and eyeglasses have no less fundamentally altered who we are in personal terms and in the broader terms of what constitutes our humanity than embracing large-scale programs of human cloning might.

Coming down from the clouds a little, I selected that epigraph as a nod to my initial inspiration for the book — as I read the three consecutive chapters all titled “The Book of the Machines,” I noticed that the word “machines” could be replaced with the word “books” without substantially changing the meaning of the text. As an example:

… it would seem that those thrive best who use books wherever their use is possible with profit; but this is the art of the books — they serve that they may rule. They bear no malice towards man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development. It is for neglecting them that he incurs their wrath, or for using inferior books, or for not making sufficient exertions to invent new ones, or for destroying them without replacing them; yet these are the very things we ought to do, and do quickly; for though our rebellion against their infant power will cause infinite suffering, what will not things come to, if that rebellion is delayed? (247–48)

Some days, as a writer, I do feel like the slave of books, sacrificing my time and energy for no real returns in money or social status. In any case, clearly this observation led me to imagine books as machines as living organisms, and to extend that metaphor into absurd realms. Although, like Butler, I protest that, despite their apparent absurdity, these ideas should be taken seriously.

I love your phrase, “impossible levels of irony.” In order to engage in any significant depth with the philosophical aspects of the book, the reader must embrace the absurdity of its initial conceit — that a poem is a viral organism, which manifests through books, and hijacks the neural network of the reader in order to extend itself and evolve. A paranoiac fever dream — consistent with the facts, like any good conspiracy theory, although all logicians know that an explanation’s consistency with the facts is no proof of its validity. But once the reader dons her ironic virtual-reality headgear, impossibly heavy though it may be, I’d like her to forget what she’s wearing and engage with the environment. So the irony serves to set the reading in motion rather than having a larger role, as either “escape hatch” or “complication,” as you suggest, at least in my own interpretation of the book’s mechanics.

Nothing bores me more than postmodern irony, which too often serves to rehabilitate old ideas rather than euthanizing them. Slavoj Žižek once warned of such all-too-postmodern ironies, in an analysis of the movie Shrek:

Instead of praising these displacements and reinscriptions too readily as potentially “subversive” and elevating Shrek into yet another “site of resistance,” we should focus on the obvious fact that, through all these displacements, the same old story is being told. In short, the true function of these displacements and subversions is precisely to make the traditional story relevant to our “postmodern” age — and thus to prevent us from replacing it with a new narrative. (Welcome to the Desert of the Real, 70–71.)

This seems like a suitable caution for any exaggerated claims for the radical virtues of irony, postmodern or otherwise.

CS: Ex Machina has both a simple and complicated structure. Simply, it can be read straight through as 65 sections’ worth of declarative sentences that have a kind of foreshortened, dialectical transit to them. The complication (which I find admirably, ominously funny) is that virtually all these lines end in what could be a footnote number set between square brackets. To pick any line and follow it to another section where one picks another line and on and on — the poem turns into a hyper-referential Choose Your Own Adventure that runs itself aground no matter which direction is pursued.

It’s an interesting way of botching an archive!

What else is here? A lot of Author thinking things through, scattered quotations from a few other writers (you pull water out of Jorge Luis Borges’ well several times). Most fascinating, though, is culling responses achieved by asking Google’s Googlism machine “What is God?” and “What is machine?” Having transubstantiated yourself through a search engine, you’ve confounded the meaning of authorship. Theodoros Chiotis, in reviewing this book, referred to it having been written by a “distributed subjectivity,” which I find very apt, as well as sweet.

How distributed a consciousness or authorship do you prefer to entertain? How did it feel to write Ex Machina? Any structural surprises pop up along the way? Would you consider writing another book as procedural as this?

JB: I haven’t thought of this structure as that of a “botched archive,” but it’s an attractive notion. I find the archive fascinating, and although it’s been argued that the novel is at least potentially already a fictional archive, I have written elsewhere, if tentatively and vaguely, on its possible use as a form for the novel (“The Archive and the Future of the Novel.” The International Journal of the Book 6.2 (2009): 71–75).

When Chiotis called the book something that might be written by a “distributed subjectivity,” and when you ask if I’d consider writing another book “this procedural,” I consider both the highest praise, since — with a scant few pages of exceptions, like those you’ve noted — I wrote the book in a more or less straightforward manner, without procedure, but with the aim of giving the impression that it was written in a procedural fashion. On occasion, I made use of procedural techniques, like culling responses from Googlism, but for the most part those experiments failed to culminate in pages that I considered strong enough for inclusion.

I’d like to note that, should one read the book “correctly” and follow the endnotes in that Choose-Your-Own-Adventure manner, said reader will (1) never finish the book, looping endlessly, and (2) never read the entire book, since some of the pages are unlinked. While this format was inspired by those same Choose Your Own Adventure books that I admired as a child, to lead into your next question (a luxury afforded by the fact that I’ve received these questions in a group, and am typing these responses at my leisure — rest assured, reading public, I am nowhere near this articulate in person!), this format is furthermore influenced by the internet and the hyperlink.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.