Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 8, 2008


Filed under: Discussion — moorekc @ 8:04 pm

As someone who was moderately obsessed with Jorge Luis Borges as an undergraduate, I am inevitably going to make a bigger deal out of this than I should. Out of my admiration for the cleverness of the rest of the week’s Sterling selection, and for Sterling’s writing generally, I’ll resist the temptation to make a full post about it. But did anyone notice the subtle mistake in Shaping Things in which Sterling refers to the “prescient parable Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” when he clearly means the excessively famous, very short, and very hard-to-find story “On the Exactitude [or “On the Rigor”] of Science” made famous by Baudrillard and others? I suppose you could make the case that “Tlon,” with its fictional encyclopedias and secret societies devoted to imagining an alternate world complete with its own language and philosophy, is also a story about the relationship between “the map” and “the territory” (97). But it’s not really a parable, and I am certain Sterling means the other. 

What I find interesting about the moment is the fact that it perfectly represents a point made by V.S. Naipaul about Borges in an essay on Argentina and its literary culture: “The Return of Eva Peron.” Naipaul explains that, in the context of his native literature, Borges is a highly ironic writer and an intellectual gamer, and not a prophet or a mystic. Borges’s American reputation as a literary seer (a la Blake, Yeats, etc.)  is not just a misappropriation of his work, but, as Naipaul implies, the result of a Western desire to move too quickly through textual reality to theoretical abstraction, and a quasi-imperialist literary critical situation. Anyhow. I find it endlessly fascinating that one great, imaginative writer who is not a prophet (but can seem like one) would misquote another great, imaginative writer who is not a prophet (but can seem like one) in an essay that, well, attempts to predict the future. I believe there is some embedded point here that could be made about the status of close reading in media theory, and what happens to the literary imagination when it attempts to theorize technology and media. But, like I said, I feel it would be ungenerous to the Sterling reading to take that possible argument too seriously.

Then again, perhaps my reluctance embodies the problem itself.



  1. thanks for the clarification kevin! i’ve been racking my brains to figure out which borges story has the map / territory distinction and the one sterling cites didn’t sound familiar.

    Comment by reneehudson — March 9, 2008 @ 5:19 am | Reply

  2. No problem. Rereading my post, I should clarify one thing: in my haste on Saturday I said there seemed to be “an embedded point” about “the status of close reading in media theory.” I meant to say that there seems to be an embedded point about the status of close reading literature in media ecologies that include new media forms generally (not just in the context of media scholarship, which of course is often impeccably documented). To put the whole problem another way: there is no doubt that we can legitimately critique a science-fiction writer turned theorist of the future like Sterling in regards to his or her techno-scientific accuracy, but should we feel entitled to also observe his or her accuracy as a reader of literary texts? I would say yes, that you have to imagine the past and the present before you can know how to imagine the future, but I’m terribly old-fashioned when it comes to these things, and I’m afraid mincing over little errors like the Borges reference might obscure Sterling’s imaginative gifts.

    Comment by moorekc — March 11, 2008 @ 4:43 am | Reply

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