It turns out that publication dates are kind of blurry. My book was indexed by Google Scholar and added to Google Books last week. Today it is finally available for ordering from the publisher's website. So this must be a good time to do some self-promotion. I am honestly not very good at it, but let's give it a try.
Some fun facts about the book:
The sentiment expressed in the last bullet point is not uncommon, as my writer friends have told me. They also warned me that when a book is out, its author does not necessarily feel ecstatically happy. On the contrary, it is scary to think that whatever I wrote is now definitely moving out of my control and into the world, where people will interpret it in some unpredictable ways (if they care at all to read it). All right, so far this has been an exercise of self-reflection rather than self-promotion...
I have created a page about the book on my website. This page contains a very brief summary, a few reviews, and a more detailed preview of some key ideas. It also explains how to get a discount when ordering a copy (hardback or electronic). If you would like to learn more, please visit the link above. Thanks! :)
Since I am writing a hypertext book, let me explain what this genre (or format) is exactly.
In the 1960s, philosopher and sociologist Ted Nelson defined hypertext as "a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper". More specifically, a hypertext can only exist on an electronic device (e.g., a computer). Its special feature is that it contains links. (It's important to clarify that each link or even each page itself cannot not be called a hypertext.)
In this sense, the World Wide Web is a great example of this modern way of sharing and storing information. Of course, the World Wide Web is not one book. Rather, it's a huge depository - very different from a "traditional" library containing multiple linear narratives. So, what is a hypertext book as opposed to a regular book? How would one recognize a hypertext book when she sees it?
To understand this, let's think about the difference between one print book and the whole library. Although each "traditional" book can contain references to some other volumes stored in the same place, a single book is supposed to be self-sufficient. In other words, you should be able to go through this text and learn some ideas that the author wanted to share without having to constantly take other volumes from the shelves of this collection. That said, some print books display more intertextuality than others, and they can be very difficult to read without understanding all the overt and hidden references. One example would be Ulysses by James Joyce. It must be noted, however, that this novel is hardly a traditional book. So, we can safely assume that regular books are supposed to be mostly self-sufficient after all.
Using the criterion of self-sufficiency, we can say that a hypertext book is a narrative (fictional or nonfictional) that is a part of the giant virtual library of the World Wide Web, but a distinct part that can be read separately from the whole. (That said, we can imagine a hypertext that exists on one computer, not online.) Same as a print book can contain references to other print books, a hypertext book can contain links that lead outside of it. At the same time, most of the links will allow the reader to stay within the same text, confirming its self-sufficiency.
A traditional book contains pages that the reader is supposed to go through in a predetermined order. You start on the first page and finish on the last page (unless there are some boring or scary parts you will decide to skip). The reader does not go through pages randomly. Instead, she trusts page numbers. That is what a linear narrative is. A hypertext book also contains pages combined into one self-sufficient whole. However, there is no path going through the narrative that would be predetermined by page numbers. Each reader can use any path they choose by clicking links that every page contains. Even the same reader may not be able to read a particular hypertext book the same way twice. Thus, we can say that the second criterion of this genre is its nonlinearity.
The third essential feature of this electronic genre is its open-endedness. A traditional print book can be considered complete after it's printed. New editions may be created, but that's an exception rather than a rule. In contrast, a hypertext book will keep changing and growing as much as its author(s) will allow it. That said, such a book does not have to be remain open-ended forever. It can be also completed at any point.
Now, let's move to examples. Do hypertext books actually exist? Wikipedia gets close to being one, although most of the links it contains probably lead the reader outside of it. The self-sufficiency criterion is not really met in this case, which is not surprising: Wikipedia is not meant to be read as one text. Speaking of Wikipedia, it actually contains an entry Hypertext fiction, which provides some interesting examples of this genre. One reason why hypertext fiction has not become popular is that it is hard to use a nonlinear narrative structure for telling a story with characters a developing plot.
In my opinion, the hypertext format is much more appropriate for nonfiction. In fact, I believe that this format offers unique opportunities for nonfiction authors. Human thinking is nonlinear, so expressing ideas about complex issues is actually easier when one does not have to force them into a sequential structure. And yet, proper hypertext nonfiction books are even harder to come by than hypertext fiction. Why? Probably because writing such a book requires some serious commitment and consistency from the author without much hope of being appreciated by readers. A nonlinear book will not receive an endorsement from a traditional publisher. It cannot be promoted like a regular book. And yet, I believe that unique properties of this format must be used to tackle topics that are especially hard to navigate. That is why, having considered the cons, I decided to write the hypertext book presented here.
I promised to share more of my poems with you, so here you go. This one is kind of strange, I think, and it requires some explanations.
The first person point of view comes from a white wolf, an outcast talking to regular wolves, or maybe to dogs. He describes them as "brown" and as a "dog herd," criticizing their vulgarity or conformity. The white wolf is proud to be different. He is even arrogant, describing his uniqueness and the special relationship he has with the moon: "I sing songs to her pale face//And she pours love to me from the sky." The white wolf is clearly condescending to the ones he is addressing: "I love you the way one loves a child," claiming that they are afraid of his difference: "your gaping fear has sharp teeth."
My favorite verse is the last one, where the white wolf recognizes that he is pathetic and miserable. He opposes those who (supposedly) hate him, yet understands that they are all intrinsically connected as "parts of one eternal whole." This yin and yang kind of relationship is so vital and strange that it hints "at the courage of nonsense." (Nonsense in this context means an oxymoron, a paradox). Although the white wolf acknowledges his misery, with the very last line he still asserts his power over the mundane: "the universe is the shiny pupil of my eye."
The poem was originally written in Russian. The translation lacks the rhythm and rhymes of the original, unfortunately. You can my other poems, most of them still not translated, on this page.
As my regular readers may remember, I am gradually working on an experimental hypertext project Me, Looking for Meaning. Here I will tell you about its background.
Just to clarify: I am certainly not unique in trying to make sense of life, to understand what this is all about, to find the right direction, etc. Many people before me have wondered about the purpose of their existence and proposed different answers through science, religion, and art. Even those who have never explored any existential questions in a systematic way want to be guided by hope that "all of this" is not for nothing. Nobody wants to live a meaningless life. There must be something about the human nature that makes us look for, even long for a meaning.
My personal quest has been that of a scholar. It started with an inkling that different pieces of reality I was navigating had to fit together somehow. Otherwise, what was the point? I am sure that I share this feeling with most, if not all, other people. Yet, over time, a realization emerged that my response to this feeling will come through science. This understanding was shaped by the environment that I grew up in, including my parents' views on education and my love of reading. I don't think I explicitly wanted to be a scholar when I began my studies at the Faculty* of Philosophy in St. Petersburg State University. Like many teens, I did not quite know what I wanted my life to be. Luckily, this was the right move, as I soon started to enjoy (some) theories we were exposed to in our classes and (some) questions we discussed during seminars.
In my late teens and early twenties, I had my share of adolescent angst and turmoil. My studies were not always enjoyable or fun for many reasons. In fact, sometimes I was not exactly sure that this education was good for anything. My faculty* had its quirks for sure, including the curious preoccupation with postmodernist philosophy that many of my professors shared. Yet, over time I realized that the program I completed did give me a great theoretical foundation in a broad range of humanities and social sciences. The postmodernism, for which I started developing a sort of intellectual allergy during my studies, turned out to be very useful in addressing some of the questions I was trying to answer for myself.
This curious intertwining of my scholarship and my personal life has been a trait of my quest for meaning all along. During my eight years in St. Petersburg State University, I started finding tentative answers for my own questions in books I was reading for studies. When I took a break from studying after getting my candidate of sciences degree**, I felt that something was missing. That is how I decided to continue my education by getting the second PhD degree, this time at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA (you can also read about this trajectory in my bio). As time passed, I saw with increasing clarity that I was the happiest when my academic interests and my intuitive attempts to make sense of life were aligned.
For me, looking for meaning equals looking for myself, trying to understand who I am and why I matter (hence, the logo of this project). Continuing on this path, I started to feel less confusion and more hope that there is a solution for challenges in my own life and in the world out there. The biggest problem I could think of was people hurting each other - and themselves in the process, so my goal gradually became to minimize these conflicts by creating more connection. That's how my focus on bridging divides through empathy has emerged. Finding myself suddenly felt possible when I decided to explore ways to enhance lost connections by helping people understand their own search for meaning.
* In Russia, groups of university departments are called "faculties."
**This degree is considered an equivalent of the PhD degree outside of Russia.
I recently understood that the word "understand" can be difficult to understand... Have you ever felt that language is so unhelpful? I get this feeling a lot. When it happens, I open a dictionary to look for the meaning of the word in question there. This simple action does not necessarily solve the problem, but it does provide some insights.
Let's take a look at the list of definitions in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. According to this source, to "understand" is:
- to grasp the meaning of something
- to grasp reasonableness of something
- to have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of something
- to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of something
- to accept as a fact or truth or regard as plausible without utter certainty
- to interpret in one of a number of possible ways
- to supply in thought as though expressed
- to have the power of comprehension
- to achieve a grasp of the nature, significance, or explanation of something
- to believe or infer something to be the case
- to show a sympathetic or tolerant attitude toward something
Yes, all these definitions are connected. You can see how the same word can refer to all of the ideas they represent. We are not dealing here with homonyms, which have the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins (e.g., "pen" as "a holding area for animals" and "a writing instrument"). At the same time, nuances of the definitions listed above suggest that the word "understand" can easily cause some... well, misunderstanding.
For example, what do we mean when we say that we understand a book? Do we want to say that we know the meaning of each word because we speak the language the book is written in (and/or are familiar with the terminology used in it)? Do we think that this text fits our reasoning, in a sense that we can relate to the author's logic? Do we suggest that there is only one interpretation of the book (intended by the author) and that we were able to grasp it? Or do we want to say that we have formed our own interpretation while acknowledging that it is just one of many? As a matter of fact, these questions apply to any text (broadly speaking), including films, news articles, photos, websites, and much more. For example, how can we make sense of the art piece in the picture above?
If we don't take into consideration nuances of the word "understand," we can easily forget that any text has many interpretations, and that it may be impossible to know the correct one. Moreover, there are reasons to doubt that any person truly understands her own creations. Roland Barthes claimed in his famous essay "The Death of the Author" (1977) that experiences of a writer cannot explain texts she produces, and that nobody can fully grasp all the influences that have shaped their own thinking. Questions about the possibility of understanding a book lead to even broader philosophical questions about the possibility of understanding ourselves.
And what about others? What do we mean when we say that we understand or don't understand another person? Trying to answer this question is important for improving the quality of any relationship. It may be especially important now, when we are so divided by polarization. Many times I have heard people say: "I'll never understand how somebody can do this!" I find this phrase really intriguing. Does the word "understand" in it mean being sympathetic toward somebody, finding logic in their actions that fits our logic, or being able to grasp the logic of their perspective without embracing it?
It is my belief that we can find logic behind any actions, even if we find them morally wrong. Notice: it's not the same as saying that these actions are fine. Perhaps, we avoid looking for this logic exactly because of the confusion around the word "understand." Many people may feel that tracing the origin of a radically different worldview cannot be done without accepting it on some level. I believe that this is not the case. Condemning specific actions and doing our best to stop the person behind them should nor prevent us from looking for deeper reasons for these actions. I am talking about reasons that go beyond simple explanations like "everyone is entitled to their own opinions" or "people who do that are just mean and stupid."
Image credit: Richard Giblett
Have you ever heard this strange-sounding term - rhizome? If you have not studied postmodernist philosophy or botany, chances are you did not.
The term "rhizome" comes from the Ancient Greek word that meant "mass of roots". This concept is used in botany to describe a part of a plant that has characteristics of both a root and a stem. Basically, it's a root-like stem that grows underground but can generate multiple new stems above the surface. Unlike a regular root that branches out mostly (but not always) downwards, parts of a rhizome can grow in multiple directions, including horizontally and upwards. Plants that have rhizomes include ginger, turmeric, bamboo and lotus.
Postmodernist scholars Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari borrowed the word "rhizome" in order to use it as a philosophical term. It suited well the new ways to create theories and describe knowledge that these thinkers were proposing. Deleuze and Guattari put it this way: "rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing". They also wrote that "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be". Deleuze called rhizome an "image of thought", contrasting it to a tree-like neat kind of thinking that has a clear hierarchical structure.
Interestingly, the world wide web has been described as a rhizome. Indeed, we can imagine hypertexts as a multitude of interconnected nodes without a clear hierarchy, very unlike a regular tree with a stem that all branches and roots can be traced back to.
I believe that the term "rhizome" should be seen as a metaphor for nonlinear and nonhierarchical thinking. Essentially, it's a great metaphor for how human thinking in general works. Deleuze and Guattari were creating a new theory of knowledge, but has knowledge ever been different? The genius of these philosophers, to me, lies in the fact that they pointed out something important about the way people think and (try to) understand the world. My experimental book Me,, Looking for Meaning is going to have a rhizomatic structure in order to reflect how these mental processes work.
In my previous post, I introduced my new project - an experimental hypertext book-in-progress Me, Looking for Meaning. (I have added some links since then, but most of them still lead to empty pages.)
So what is the idea behind this project? What's the point of writing a nonsequential book?
I chose this format because my thinking - like all human thinking - is nonlinear. It happens through associations running between partially formed ideas and mental images. That's why we can get a random idea about something without fully comprehending how we got there.
It is true that to communicate with each other we often put our ideas in a linear form. (Often, but not always. Most of our communication is, actually, nonverbal.) Words are strings of letters. Sentences are strings of words. Books are strings of sentences. But think of your struggles to express your ideas. The challenge is practically inevitable in situations when we try to grasp and share with others our thoughts on complex issues. We all have been there: whether when we were working on a school/college essay or tried to explain to our partner how we feel about something they did.
Writers know this battle all too well. When I think about what I want to put on a page, ideas seem so beautifully intertwined. They lead to each other, they make sense. And then I try to translate them into words, connect words into sentences, etc... Ugh! What is going on?? The result is so far from what I have envisioned. So many things that I was going to say had to be left out because I simply don't know how to fit them all together. To be honest, first I thought that something is wrong with my ideas, with my writing skills - perhaps, even with me.
But there is nothing wrong. I am ok. Nonlinear thinking is fine. That is why I decided to embrace it and use it as a basis of my project.
I have launched this project just now (February 2021), either in an effort to stay sane or because I have already lost it. Which explanation is more precise remains to be seen.
This is going to be an experimental project, a hypertext book-in-progress meant to capture my never-ending quest to understand myself and the world I live in. It is based on the idea that, because human thinking is nonlinear, it can be best captured in the nonsequential form.
At this point, my plan is that both the content and form of the project will be in the state of becoming for a while. Each time you visit it, you may find something very different. On good days, I believe that this is going to be something really cool and special. On bad days, I ask myself: who, realistically, would want to stumble through the labyrinth of my ever-changing meandering thoughts?
So far I have created a logo (see above) and generated some excitement in myself by envisioning different topics I will explore. I wrote a tentative text for the Start page, and added to it a few links that lead to ideas I am planning to delve into next. As you can see, not much has been done so far.
As more pages/thoughts in the book appear, I will use them for my blog. You will find about the progress as I share new posts on social media. I am soon going to tell you more about the purpose of the project and why I decided to develop it in this manner. Stay tuned!
I first heard this meditation in 2012 when I visited one of the Personal Power and Prosperity workshops in Orlando. They are seriously cool, by the way! I loved this very visual meditation, and I was especially moved by its "punch line". Since then, it came to my mind once in a while. But it was not until the fall 2020, when I decided to find it and use for communication courses I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago.
I was really surprised that I could not find any information about the author of this very distinct meditation. Instead, I located two different versions on YouTube. Here is one of them and the other one. None of the two mention anything about the original source in video descriptions. So the mystery remained... Moreover, they were not suitable for my purposes. So I ended up creating my own version, which I am happy to share with you here. My students enjoy it, so perhaps you will, too!
In case you are not into meditating but you are curious to know what it is about, the text of this meditation is below. Please read it only if you really don't want to try the meditation in the video above! Otherwise, you will get some spoilers...
Imagine in front of you there is a large clear plastic bag. As you look at the bag, notice that you can see very clearly what is inside. One thing you notice right away is the color. Inside the bag, a beautiful purple swirling color is slowly moving around, shimmering and sparkling. Just for a moment, watch the purple light swirling slowly and peacefully.
There are some things that you can place into the bag. Some things about yourself, your thoughts, your ideas, your difficulties, your hopes. Begin by putting into the bag your name and everything it means about you. What it says about you, how it feels to have this name. Look at it swirling in the purple light.
Place into the bag your clothes. Start with what you are wearing right now. Then put your favorite outfit. Then put your entire wardrobe. Place into the bag your hairstyle. Notice what all those things say about you, what kind of statement they make, what they mean about you. Watch them all slowly swirling in the bag.
Next, think about things that belong to you, your possessions. Put them all into the bag. Your books, your computer, your phone, your furniture, your pets, your house and your car – if you have them. There are many other things that you own. Think of those that are most important to you and put them into the bag as well. Look all of those things swirling slowly in the purple mist. Notice what they say about you, what you are trying to tell people about yourself by having them.
Next, put your job into the bag. Put the job you have now and all the jobs you had in the past. Put your dream job into the bag as well. Put in there all the ideas about what you do, what you can do, what you should do. Put into the bag your mind and with it that little voice in the back of your mind that tells you what to do, and what not to do with your life. Notice all of those things swirling in the purple mist.
Now, place into the bag all of your beliefs and values. Everything you think about yourself and other people, about life and death, about love and sex, about religion and politics. About your own body: your weight, age, gender, sexuality, skin color, physical abilities. Put all your diseases into the bag as well, all your hopes and fears about your body. Put your personality into the bag. It’s a lot of things but the bag will be able to contain them all, allowing them to shimmer peacefully in the purple light.
Now, place people you know into the bag: your parents, siblings, all your relatives. Put into the bag anyone you have ever loved, and anyone you have ever hurt, anyone who has ever loved you and anyone who has ever hurt you. Put all your relationships into the bag. Put the judgements you have about other people into the bag. Place there anything you have ever complained about, all you opinions about things you feel are good and bad, right and wrong. Put into the bag your need to be right, put there your accomplishments and your failures, things you are guilty of, arguments you had, all your habits and addictions. Put into the bag all the agreements you didn't keep, all the relationships you left, all the relationships that left you. Put into the bag what you think of your enemies and what your enemies think of you. Put all your current problems and struggles into the bag. Put it all into the bag and just watch it all covered with the purple swirling shimmer.
These are things that define you. Look at them swirling in the bag.
Put anything you might have forgotten about yourself into the bag. Anything that is important for you and for who you are. Now look at it again, see as many details about yourself and your life as you can.
You are not all the things in the bag. You are the one looking at the bag. You created everything in that bag to help you experience yourself, understand yourself, and tell others about yourself. You have the power to keep or discard anything in this bag. It is your choice.
All the things in that bag are not you. You are the one who is looking at the bag. Who you are, who you can be is always up to you.
Look around you and describe what you see. Since many of us are stuck in our homes right now (re: pandemic), you are likely to respond: "Nothing exciting. Walls, ceiling, table, computer, curtains... Everyday boring stuff." Now my next question would be: How do you understand what these things are?
"Ok, a case of lockdown madness," you may think to yourself. If you are very patient (or a friend of mine who wants to indulge me), you will say something like: "Well, it's kind of obvious. Walls are walls, and a ceiling is a ceiling. So, that's why I understand."
We live in the world of objects that mean something to us. Not because they are special, but just because we know what they are. So it seems kind of stupid and a waste of time to wonder why table is a table. But according to semiotics, nothing should be obvious. Semiotics is a science that studies meanings: what they are, where they come from, how they influence us.
What do you mean? This is a question we hear and use a lot. We talk about something being meaningless in a negative sense. Yet we seldom wonder why we are so preoccupied by meanings and what those are supposed to be. Our language is of little help, perhaps because we are not used to questioning the obvious. So when we start asking ourselves what we mean by questioning meanings, the lack of appropriate terms that would help our brain to dig into this mess becomes obvious.
Meanings are... ideas, associations, interpretations, definitions, values. All that stuff that exists in our heads yet gets expressed through objects we produce and surround ourselves with. It is the stuff that cultures are made of. And it's not just physical objects, as a matter of fact. It would be more correct to say that meanings are attached to any aspect of our reality. After all, we also know that the sky is the sky, money is money, and teachers are teachers.
Same as you can easily describe your room, you will also be able to say who you are: your gender, race, sexuality, age, profession, physical characteristics, place of origin, political affiliation, religious beliefs and so on. But what do all of these things really mean to you, and what do you think they mean to others? Again, nothing obvious here. Of equal importance is to ask ourselves why other people mean what we think they mean to us, according all these characteristics I mentioned. I won't break a new ground by saying that questioning the ideas we attach to ourselves and others have been helpful for understanding intergroup conflicts.
Finally, you may also think it is obvious how you understand your own feelings and sensations: pain and pleasure, love and hate. If you are stressed, this means something is stressful, which is not fun, and you need to figure out what's wrong. Yet, according to mindfulness meditation practitioners, saying that "stress is stress" is not helpful. Stress is actually experienced as sensations in our body that are very difficult to describe with words (tension? tingling? burning? pressure?) that we don't even pay attention to as soon as we put a simple label on them. And because being stressed is not considered to be something good, we start analyzing what's wrong or feeling bad about being stressed. Both are really unhelpful strategies, as it would be way better to just pause and experience these hard-to-describe sensations without not giving them any names.
I don't expect to have been able to explain these extremely complicated ideas in just a few paragraphs. Also, it would be wrong to say that this is something only semiotics is concerned with. Symbolic interactionism and the social construction of reality theory explore similar puzzling issues, just from slightly different angles. And these are just some examples of scholarly frameworks that can help us understand this.
To wrap this post up, I just want to say that, in my opinion, wondering why different aspects of our reality mean certain things to us can be really exciting and useful. The more obvious an association or interpretation is, the more it should be analyzed. If we notice how meanings that appear absolute and absolutely commonsensical are actually not, this may help us lead more fulfilling and peaceful lives. If you are wondering what I mean, stay tuned for more posts on this topic!