James Nulick’s Valencia opens with an HIV diagnosis. Nulick, protagonist, is dying. He has traveled to the southern coast of Spain to stay at the hotel which gives the novel its name. He has traveled there to hasten his death, to preempt the prolonged and painful corporal vulnerability which immunodeficiency entails.

He has brought with him to Hotel Valencia a box of photographs, which serve as the premise for an autobiography built from achronological vignettes. Each vignette moves in the style of curlicue storytelling characteristic of writers like Elena Ferrante, where a seeming digression or tangent loops back into relevance with the section’s primary storyline. We are told briefly of a tragic house fire, the text appears to move on to a description of a previously owned key ring, and suddenly we are back where we have begun. It is this ability — or illusion — of any and all narrative details to interrelate which gives both Valencia and the Neopolitan Novels their feelings of veracity. The physics of their fictive worlds are consistent and unifying. In the case of Valencia, it is the sensation of abandoning one area of a jigsaw puzzle in service of another, only to realize that the far edges of the new section bind seamlessly with its predecessor.

Curlicue Narrative

Most of Valencia describes Nulick’s 1970s childhood, his transition into adolescence, and his time at a small liberal arts college in the age of H.W. Much of this period takes place at the wrecking yard his father runs, and Nulick’s description of the business’s customers — “sad [and] anonymous lives filled with longing and discontent” — projects a certain fear at what his own life could become. It is at the wrecking yard, after all, that Nulick begins stumbling upon queer mags alongside the various Hustlers and Playboys occasionally turned up in repossessed cars. Puberty changes him into a person “ruled by flesh,” a sovereignty that will eventually kill him. When Nulick writes that his first encounters with pornographic images of men “broke open things inside” of him, we are to understand the breaking on equal footing as the opening.

Inevitably, childhood is described with warm but qualified nostalgia, a longing for a time before testosteronic tyranny. The world of childhood is one of peach blossoms and Gerber jars, honeybees and homing pigeons (at points in his childhood, James keeps both). This personal nostalgia blurs sometimes with the cultural, Nulick veering into commentary on what he calls “the age of keyboard and avatar.” His own apocalyptica smudges suspiciously into societal fatalism: “Family unity, once no further than a phone call, is now a memory of the recent past.” Coming down from methamphetamines one night in Rio Seco, a small town in the California desert, Nulick reflects, “I cover my eyes. I fail to summon darkness… Our cities are too bright. We’ve lost our ability to see the stars, to make our way in the dark. We have turned away from God, and He is punishing us.”

Indeed, Nulick is a kind of modernist in taste and inclination, with a personal philosophy rooted in existentialism and a personal psychology from the pages of Freud. His prose sports the terse concision of Hemingway;[1] Kafka and Joyce are interlocutors, guides who are deferred to over the course of a lifetime. Nulick’s sexual desire is matched only by a tendency toward self-destruction, a death drive to match his eros. “I wish to end as I began, in salt and darkness,” he writes, in what could be a paraphrase of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “organic life [driven] back into the inanimate state,” the restoration of “an earlier state of things.”

But where sex to Freud is a life instinct, it lures in Nulick for entirely opposite reasons. “True bliss is the obliteration of the ego,” he writes, death definitionally ecstatic. In Valencia, drugs are sex is death; the crack pipe a “glass dick.” All are tools with one shared function: stopping time, eluding living.

(Figurative language is one of Nulick’s authorial talents. A drug high induces “gasoline dreams,” a relationship is a “blast furnace,” women “dip their heads like hummingbirds” towards their drinks.)

And it is time, centrally, which sits at the center of Valencia, its thematic bedrock and the thing which it enables its organizing structure. History moves around Nulick — Hurricane Andrew hits, the Soviet Union collapses, the World Trade Center falls — but somehow James stays the same, ordering his rum-and-cokes, wearing Dickies with black T-shirts. The peach trees blossom, pink rays of sunlight announce a blossoming new day, but somehow Nulick fails to bloom. Some of the novel’s most poignant passages deal with time’s passage and with memory. On an older boy who, it is implied, sexually molested him as a child:

He was a teacher of sorts. He was also a thief. He stole many things from me. He told me the stars in the sky had burned out long ago, that what we were seeing was only the past. The past was traveling so slowly it was already dead by the time it reached us. Like receiving a phone call from a dead relative, he said. When the next star is born you will be dead, he said. I will be, too. I did not understand.

Or one of the more curious paragraphs of the book:

As we move closer to the digital we move closer to the fluidity of the female organism. Hard surfaces collapse. They break and wear down. To become eternal we must be willing to be broken, fed through cables and stored on silica for future use. The male mind does not like to be broken down. Graveyards are filled with analog tombstones. Only nature, infinitely-changing, can finger her way through the marble. 

Above all, time is frequently intolerable. Nulick ticks the days of his life off of calendars. Memory, like drugs and sex and death, is an escape from painful presentness; a blow job at one point is described as “the warm rush of history,” and his revisiting the past is merely a subset of daydream.

I understand I have thus far blurred the separation, often treated as sacred, between author and semi-autobiographical character. I understand this is offensive, sacrilegious, to the many who write and wish to maintain distance. I understand that wish. I also think it fair and accurate here to say Valencia is essentially autobiography. I do not think Nulick traveled, or ever planned to travel, to Valencia, Spain in order to die. I do not think he has HIV, or that he is dying from it (though he may and might be, Nulick appears alive and well at time of writing). I do not think all the events in this novel are literally true, though dates and characters overlap with the factual world. But I believe that what Valencia is really about is the possibility of these things occurring, and that this possibility makes them in a sense real. I believe it is about the ways that, simultaneously, such possibilities can be terrifying and alluring, about the absurd way in which Nulick can both marvel at the beauty of the world and fantasize, as he does at one point, about an alternate timeline in which he was abducted and killed as a child, in which his body was stuffed into a black plastic Hefty back and covered with earth. Valencia is about how one can wake on a summer morning and look quickly to the blinds to check the light filtering through their cracks, and if seeing a brilliant glint of dew — but no, that is not right, it is not Nulick but Nabokov I am remembering. It was Nulick who marveled at peach blossoms, not dewy glints, and it was Nulick’s bangs which at eight were figurative blinders, not blinds. Yes, Valencia is about blossoms and blossoming and failing to blossom, about pink explosions and pink flesh and finally, about when it is time, as time goes on, to give up, wither, and pass away.


I finished, in the summer, the beautiful television series Rectify, which finished its fourth and final season last year. Over those seasons, viewers watched as Daniel Holden, a convicted murderer and rapist imprisoned nineteen years, is released — on the results of a DNA test, and despite an earlier confession — into a small Southern town which still believes him guilty. Scenes from his time incarcerated, in near-solitary on death row, are interspersed with his gradual acclimation to the outside world. Holden’s guilt or innocence remains, like his mind and memory post-incarceration, foggy throughout most of the show.

Rectify also uses its subject matter to deal with the overlapping themes of time and memory: time’s passage, temporal perception, memory’s malleability, and the relationship between the three. Both Holden and Nulick are bestowed a death sentence’s looming curfew; time is given a complicated, contradictory nature. It is preciously limited and something to be gotten through, endured. What I can’t figure out, Holden’s cell neighbor Kerwin wonders out loud, is how I can be in a place like this and still want to live. But the living is not easy. Inmates on the row lose their grips on sanity, and Daniel leaves far from clean.

Holden’s method of doing time, as Kerwin puts it, is by not doing time. He escapes into books. He meditates for long hours. Rectify and Valencia are accounts of polar approaches to the problem of getting through time, dueling philosophies of hedonism (Nulick) and asceticism (Holden). Where Nulick gets plastered, shoots crystal, tries crack, and fucks prostitutes, Daniel attempts to empty his mind, to cease thinking. Where Nulick gets his philosophy from Vollmann and Camus, Daniel reads Aquinas and Buddha and Confucius. But both, as Holden attests to in a short press conference upon release, practice denials of reality, the obliteration of consciousness into unthinking and steady hum:

Over the past two decades, I have developed a strict routine, which I followed religiously, you might say, a way of living and thinking, or not thinking, as was often the point, of, well, the point. Now, this way of being didn’t encourage the contemplation that a day like today could ever occur, or a tomorrow like tomorrow will be for me now. I had convinced myself that kind of optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed. Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed, and was, ironically, a kind of fantasy itself.

Emily Nussbaum has already pointed to the exceptional beauty of S2E4:

The book-club women get into a conversation about a story that Daniel has read, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” and which he’s memorized. His lunch companion can’t believe it: “It would be torture to memorize.” No, he explains: it was a calming task, back during “a period in my life when I was having some difficulty dealing with the passing of time in a traditional sense.” Because Wolff’s story deals “with the bending of time,” memorizing it helped him bend time as well.

As can be expected, Holden transitions poorly. His time in prison, with only fluorescent lighting and windowless walls, has thrown off his circadian rhythm, his sense of passing days and hours. The attempts to “do time by not doing time” have only exacerbated his disconnect from the pace of the real world. Holden has developed mild agoraphobia, and even basic social interactions can be difficult. He is, in a perversely inverted sort of way, Baudelaire’s albatross — so specifically adapted to one domain, to one type of self-annihilating existence on death row, that he appears awkward and clumsy outside it. Or, at least, he is the poet with which Baudelaire (romantically? conceitedly?) compares the seafaring bird — well-spoken, idealistically lofting above the rest, but unable to run basic errands or make small talk.

There is help along the way in acclimating. Tawney, his stepbrother’s wife, shows him religion, culminating in a dramatic baptism scene. Lezley, a grizzled hippie who runs an antique shop, invites Daniel to a drug-fueled party, providing a counter-balancing hedonism in the hope of it bringing Daniel closer to center.

Lezley: “Half of [the women] at this party want to sleep with you. The other half are afraid of you, and half of them still want to sleep with you. It ain’t even about luck at this point.

Holden: “And that’s how you reach enlightenment?”

Lezley: “Who gives a shit? Come on, buddy. It’s time to join the human race, in all its permutations.”

Still he flickers between past and present, dreaming of prison memories, emerging from sleep never quite sure which bed he’s waking up into. It’s not uncommon for us to talk about the lack of reliability in witness testimony, but Daniel himself does not seem sure whether he murdered the woman he is accused of killing, or whether his belief has been snuck in insidiously, either as a prison coping strategy to ease the anger of wrongful conviction, or else earlier, while coming down from psilocybin in a sheriff’s office after being grilled all day by a state senator with an authoritarian demeanor. (Daniel, the victim, and their friends — key witnesses in his conviction — were all on mushrooms during the alleged rape and murder. Memories, already so partial and prone to error, become Twombly canvasses.)

Like Nulick’s protagonist, Holden exists half in a world which can be physically touched, grasped, kneaded, and half in a world of colored-in sketch. As details erode, the imagination rushes in willingly to take their place.

Paulie — the town in which Holden was born, raised, and convicted — and its judicial arm are certainly convinced of his remaining guilt, referring to the sperm mismatch as a “DNA technicality.” (This is an example of top-down-dominant hermeneutics, where the model has too much influence over, and too little obligation to, the bottom-up “facts” of the situation.) History rears its head the moment he steps out of the prison gates. The past is literally dredged from riverbeds. High school mixtapes are listened to. Retired sheriffs are interviewed and re-interviewed. Key witnesses are revisited, and tests are run on whatever’s left.

As we say play out in Paulie’s residents, the viewer’s interpretation of any event surrounding Daniel, post-release, is fundamentally affected by his assessment of the probability of Daniel’s guilt. His present cannot speak for itself. Whether Daniel’s release and integration into society is a cause for celebration or a deep injustice; whether Daniel is justified in some of the minor crimes he commits post-release; much of one’s reading of Rectify comes down to one, huge, plot-driving ambiguity. Part informs whole informs part informs whole. To Paulie residents, assessment of the whole informs probability that Daniel is a threat to the community, that a man who has both confessed to and been convicted of sexual assault and murder is living down the street.[2]

Tawney, the woman who brings religion into Daniel’s life post-release, sees his interest in Christ and baptism as fundamentally benevolent. Tawney’s husband is convinced of a degree of guilt, and thinks the sudden interest an attempt at cuckoldry: “I don’t buy your lost soul act for a minute,” he tells Holden. “You don’t want to get right with God, you want to get right with my wife.” That Ted is both correct and incorrect, his suspicions justified and unjustified, are testament to the quality of Rectify as a work of art. It is comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, with a fog of uncertainty that doesn’t and maybe can never be cleared up. Only one piece of Paulie’s past is perfectly preserved, and it is treated as a sort of shrine: The mother of the murdered girl has kept her daughter’s room intact for decades, cheerleader pom-poms and floral comforters and bulletin boards exactly where they were in the nineties. She is paralyzed by it. How much does the past matter? What can it tell us or help?

Time and memory are subjects to which Rectify‘s medium is fundamentally suited. The episodic format (which has also been present in literature but no longer popularly is) spreads out informational delivery over months and years, so that audience memory distorts in much the same way Daniel’s does. Traditional television’s opening recap, moreover, can distort as much as clarify one’s reading of what follows. This has changed with the rise of binge consumption and streaming (starting, of course, with the DVD series) but has not evaporated in effect entirely.

There is also this: Literature, despite all its merits and own advantages over other mediums, bears the following handicap as regards television and film: it cannot challenge visual bias and stereotype, that prioritization of the eye’s perceived category over the subject’s actual being. This effect can be demonstrated between characters in literature, but demonstration is always a weaker approach than subjection.

This is a subtlety of the optional in the necessary. It is subtlety which can never be achieved when words must be explicitly selected and stated as opposed to images more passively pictured and picked. Thus we have the uncomfortable gendered and racial dynamics, never explicit, always implied in the viewer’s own discomfort, between Rectify‘s black female DA and the white male Sheriff’s Department and state senate ensemble that surrounds her. Every exchange is tense and loaded, while in the script entirely invisible.

Near the end of the series, a stranger at an ex-offender rehabilitation house stands in the frame of a doorway, intimidating, until the scene passes cordially and we are reminded our initial assessment was informed by the tattoos around his neck and the criminal sentence in his past —the very first impressions the halfway house is trying to work through. If you are rooting with the plot, you are rooting against yourself.

Consider, for a second, one variation on a classic television scene. A man, out to dinner with his in-laws, is concerned for his wife, and breaches her confidence while she is in the restroom in order to seek the help of her parents. He believes it is for the good. While he talks to them, a woman, indistinct to us — but also, like his wife, a brunette, and reasonably similar in build — walks behind the restaurant table. We can see her, hazily, in the background of the shot. In the seconds of ambiguity before the identity of this woman becomes clear, she is both a nondescript extra — features coincidental — and also the man’s wife, and it is at this moment that the audience is push to ask itself why exactly this ambiguity so concerns us, why the building anxiety, why the feeling of being on edge. It is a subtle thing. Creeping optics. And then, a split-second later, the woman is clearly in view; she is no one; and the moment passes, only a suggestion which has been posed nearly unnoticeable in the background of a shot, which fiction can never hope to replicate.


“In his later works, Klee began to erase the lines that typically distinguish a painting’s foreground image from its background, and he populated this background with numerous other figures that enter into a viewer’s awareness to greater and lesser degrees. Thus Klee’s late works… paint the usually inconspicuous tension of emerging and withdrawing, the usually unnoticed opposition of foreground and background which allows painting to work. The ‘cost’ of Klee’s ‘semi-abstraction’ (Young 2001, p. 163) seems to be that Klee’s paintings sacrifice the longstanding tradition of a clear and unambiguous central image.”

—Iain Thomson, “Notes to Heidegger’s Aesthetics”

Room 237 is a documentary covering fan theories that have popped up around Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Costume design, background posters, and the brand logos of pictured food items all receive thorough interrogations by the documentary’s featured fan theorists, who interpret each as a crucial clue to the movie’s plot or themes. What struck me most, when watching Room 237, was how different, rather than similar, this world of film fan theory felt from literary interpretation.[3]

I’ve been trying, in grappling with this difference, to get a hold on what I mean by four terms. These are: foreground, background, signal, and noise.

Foreground and background seem fairly straightforward. The foreground in an artwork is that which most immediately commands the attentional and sensory focus of the viewer. The viewer can choose to redirect his attention away from the work’s foreground, but this is usually an active experiential choice rather than a passive default. In visual fields, what is nearest to the POV/observer is considered “foreground,” but I’m using it here in a way that allows for this to not be true — if, for example, objects closest to the viewer are blurred in a large-aperture, distant-focus shots. The object in focus is in the foreground because it is being pointed at. The nearer objects transform into background.

“Signal” and “noise” are harder to pin down, but the essential quality of a signal seems to be that it conveys or communicates from director to audience. In film, the “something” it points to will frequently be plot or theme-related. In modern and postmodern visual art, the “something” is often related to form or culture.

All these are gradient terms and frequently overlap. Foregrounding can be a form of signaling, and noise is often but not always backgrounded. Foregrounding is a way of pointing to; signals are pointed at.

A “mood” or “atmosphere” is not a signal if it is an end in itself. It is only a signal insofar as it is a signifier, insofar as it attempts to intentionally communicate something further, perhaps about a character or artistic tradition or our contemporary society. The same is true in film about set design, costume design, and “aesthetic.” In the case of set and costume design, intra-work logic, real-world fidelity, and visual appeal-slash-interestingness are often dominant drivers of creative decisions. And while all of these are important functions of art elements, they have more to do with “fleshing out” than sending a signal. Tellingly, the aforementioned roles (costume and set design) are significantly delegated by most directors.

I don’t dispute that every component in an artistic work conveys something. If one is engaging in a gender critique of a movie, the color of a dress may be indelibly important. But a director is usually not intentionally communicating something important about plot or theme with it. Everything is a signifier, but only some objects transport the intended signification. I have no interest in arguing that intended meanings are “truer” or more important, though I question whether the premise of an authentic or “intrinsically supreme” meaning is coherent to begin with. Instead I want to make two descriptive claims: 1) That directors, in the generic sense of “art authors,” do have intended themes and plots which they include (and frequently emphasize, or foreground) in a work, and 2) That because of this emphasizing, as well as the norms of pre-collegiate literary education, there is significant overlap between the themes and plots which viewers look for in art experiences and those which the director/art author intends them to.

In other words, directors include signals and audiences look for them. The work of art is, among many other functions and ontologies, a medium of communication, a way for a director to point.

Where does noise fit within this configuration? Elements of noise are interchangeable or even replaceable without significant damage to the intended communication. Were we to remove them, we would possibly have an even clearer conception of the work’s plot and themes, though of course then the works would cease to be art and would read as Cliff’s Notes. (This is interesting: that noise turns signals into art.)

Often, many noisy components of a work, when taken in amalgam or abstracted up, constitute a signal. Perhaps the specific brand of a character’s deodorant is for the director’s purposes interchangeable, but the fact that it is prominently and recognizably branded is not: he has the money to forgo generics, the director is letting us know. So it may be more accurate to say that qualities of things, as much or more than the things themselves, constitute noise.

These are messy and relative definitions, but required in order to make the arguments I’m attempting to advance about film, literature, and medium. One of these arguments has almost already been established in the definitions above: that signals are typically placed in the foreground of a work and noise in the background. The second, now, is that directors frequently “hide” signals by tucking them both into the background and among noisy elements. Directors do, for instance, often get intimately involved in the design of certain sets or costumes, placing what we and them would consider crucial details of plot and theme in plain but backgrounded site. For a strange and unknowable reason, this hiding of signals is an almost universally prized trait in critical assessments of works.

The third argument is that a prerequisite of this specific type of signal concealment is the presence of multiple sensory dimensions, or of multiple details or events occurring simultaneously in the work. In this way we can see that literature is “flatter” than film. Signals-in-hiding cannot be tucked literally behind other signals in the same way that they can in film. Two things cannot show themselves literally at once; instead, the work plods ahead one word at a time. Nor does literature have the same debt to comprehensive veracity that film has. A film scene in a pantry room must, unless otherwise explained away, include fully stocked shelves. Each shelf and stocked item has the potential to carry thematic or narrative weight, to be, in other words, a signal. (We can call this opportunity the subtlety of the optional in the necessary.) A literary scene does not carry such an obligation; details are offered voluntarily, most are left out, and those which are included have a higher probability of being important, hence their inclusion. Indeed, novels do not have many obligations at all in this cultural moment, a liberation which brings with it limitations.

None of this is to deny equivalences between mediums. While almost every word is volunteered and created by the author of a text, subtextual and linguistic double-meaning is one way to “layer” a literary work akin to cinema. Frequently, important signals are “buried” textually in seemingly noisy descriptive paragraphs, paragraphs which are themselves an analogue to the cinematic backdrop. It is even possible to write in a way that a reader skims over such paragraphs, ignorant of their secrets. Literary filler serves the important job of bulking out a text, allowing readers to “sit” in a world or plot point in a way film, with its tight financial and time constraints cannot, so literature’s temporal fleshing-out can be understood as a counterpart to cinema’s spatial fleshing-out.

(There are other limitations to literature, or abilities of cinema. One is consistent presence, or what we might call background residuality. Audiences of all mediums are forgetful. In film, things which are true in the continuous sense/tense remain present so long as they are on-screen. A character’s blackness will be on-screen to some extent whether or not the director wishes to place viewer focus on it. This, along with the very real possibility that the casting choice is incidental to theme or plot, makes us unsure whether the director is pointing or not, whether we are seeing part of a signal or mostly noise. There is an ambiguity of intent. Since audiences look where directors point, this ambiguity matters, if not intrinsically at least in consequence.

In a literary work, it is easy for the reader to forget such descriptive details. If a side character’s blackness is slipped into a brief physical description at the start of an interaction, it won’t move interpretation to the extent that television is capable of. If the author reminds, makes a fuss about a particular detail, the ruse is up, the intention is known. Ambiguity and its elegance disappear.)

My guess is it is not incidental that the same people (critics, academics, connoisseurs) who prize signal-noise ambiguities also have qualms with 1) the prioritization of directorial/authorial intent, and 2) “preachy” or “sermonizing” works. My guess is that this kind of ambiguity amounts to a director including a detail which he considers vitally important, and then disguising it in such a way that the audience must figure out its relative importance for themselves. The subtlety of a signal in turn reflects a subtlety of intent, allowing viewers to “figure out for themselves” from the provided source material rather than being lectured at.

Two more explanations arise from the conceptual carving of foreground/background, signal/noise. One is that since hierarchies of foreground and background are central to our ordinary perceptual organization, their interrogation is in itself an important function of art. Escher’s tessellations, or the grounding reversals of Citizen Kane, actively challenge established visual hierarchies. Literary shifts in perspective penetrate the foregrounding effect of subjectivity.

A second explanation is hinted at in the following graphic courtesy of Giffiths and Tenenbaum’s “From Mere Coincidences to Meaningful Discoveries.” The zone of “suspicious coincidence” is also, for an audience, the zone of intrigue, where anything can be a red herring or Chekhov’s Gun. It’s where interpretive viewing gets interesting, and possibility appears endless:



“Two further explanations arise from the conceptual carving of foreground/background, signal/noise. One is that since hierarchies of foreground and background are central to our perceptual organization, their interrogation is in itself a valuable function of art.”

“The zone of  ‘suspicious coincidence’ is also, for an audience, the zone of intrigue, where anything can be a red herring or Chekhov’s Gun. It’s where interpretive viewing gets interesting, and possibility appears endless.”

What if these were different figurations of the same concept, or subsets of the same neurological phenomenon? Where would the common ground be?

Possibly in “surprise,” the realization that something which seemed coincidental or nonessential — that is, which seemed to be noise — is actually crucial linked information — signal. Our best chances of understanding it come via predictive processing models of the brain.

Predictive processing is the currently en vogue theory which claims our brains are evolutionarily designed, not unlike a neural network, to constantly make predictions about reality which are then “checked” or verified. The accuracy of the prediction is incorporated into future predictive work, so that over many iterations, something like our identification of a class of object (“lion”) is perfected and can be contextualized by other attributes (“moving,” “direction=towards you”) in order to predict risk factor. Predictive processing allows us to make highly sophisticated probability analyses about what is possible or likely to be the case, and therefore what is possible or likely to happen next, so that the subject can take appropriate measures and interact with his environment in a sophisticated, self-preserving way. Van de Cruys and Wagemans, in “Putting reward in art: A tentative prediction error account of visual art,” [4] explain predictive processing’s theorized role in perception:

The predictive coding approach of perception holds that the brain actively anticipates upcoming sensory input rather than passively registers it. On the basis of prior experience, the brain actively makes predictions about what visual input to expect in the current context of stimulation. At every level of the visual hierarchy predictions are generated and propagated (top-down) to lower levels, where they are checked against incoming (bottom-up) evidence.

A significant part of predictive processing involves attentional focus, or the context-appropriate allocation of limited cognitive resources. Because the brain lacks the ability to actively monitor a complex scene in its visual field (e.g. the complex and only loosely connected movements of hundreds of people in a shopping mall), it allocates attention through predictive processing. This involves not just making predictions but making predictions about what should be predicted on. If one is living in a dangerous environment (working as Presidential escort in the Secret Service, walking through a jungle), these predictions can be life-or-death. But even outside such situations, attentional focus is helpful for finding a friend in the street, or picking out a book at a bookstore. It is an essential part of all reality navigation, and prevents attentional paralysis.

I’ve argued, and stand by the assertion, that even if everything in e.g. a film is technically a signal of something, it is descriptively true that a viewer must attentionally prioritize, testing and training, just as a neural network would, not only its predictions but which aspects in an image or series of images (video) are more important relative to others. Insofar as a viewer sees the film as a communication, this prioritization will take place on somewhat the same grounds as, or with some degree of symmetry to, what the director intends the viewer to prioritize. We are essentially looking for markers of what is important in a communication, based on established cultural significations to represent intentionality/emphasis (the director knows x is a marker, I know x is a marker, and he knows I know x is a marker, allowing synchronicity). Foregrounding an object, action, or utterance is one way of saying, “has been given qualities which cue a viewer to focus attention on it.”

Commas are a literary example of markers which signal intentionality — clarifying, even at a grammatical level, intentionality over time, that is, over the course of a sentence or paragraph’s development. When the grammatical structure of a sentence is unclear, the interpreter must revert to probability assessments with respect to the real world, to the probability of a statement’s being possible or real. Consider the role of predictive processing which allows us to read accurately the intent in a sentence like the following (an example from deep learning and natural language processing). Without e.g. commas to hierarchically organize and clarify speaker intent, we are left to determine it through our understanding of what is probable in the “real” world outside language:

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 10.07.12 PM.png

Credibility of speaker is crucial: there must be a shared set of understandings as to what a formulation most likely means in order that a speaker can confidently communicate and a listener can confidently interpret. While it is possible that the “She” in the example above is physically standing in vans while (repeatedly) announcing a truck safety program, we can assume a fluent or sophisticated English-speaker will reliably predict the way the above formulation is most likely to be interpreted, and thus, should this speaker in fact mean the “She” is physically standing in a van, we can assume the speaker would have phrased the sentence differently in order to make this “minority” meaning clear. While there is technically plenty of ambiguity in the above sentence, an average reader will easily detect a majority probability regarding what the speaker intends. As long as all interlocutors understand the majority probability of interpreted interpreted, it becomes a feedback loop which “works out” ambiguity in language over time.

Returning to foreground/background/signal/noise, we can see that the brain makes choices regarding attentional focus, some conscious, some unconscious. When a director is ambiguous or counter-intuitive in his presentation of an object or occurrence so that it is unclear whether attention ought be paid — e.g. by placing signal in a background, or among noise — our predictive models of perceptual triage are questioned. If the ambiguities accurately map real-world ambiguities, then we are updating our predictive models with valuable nuance. If they do not accurately map real-world ambiguities, we may be being led dangerously astray into future predictive errors, or even a sort of predictive paralysis. But the predictive system’s only mode of determining the veracity of a map is the vague sensation of “resonance.” Insofar as a work resonates as truthful, the predictive system will reward ambiguity.


Moving beyond foreground/background/signal/noise, works which contradict any of our predictions (and not just predictions about what is worth predicting upon) update our models. It makes sense that we would find them rewarding at a cognitive level: they are perceived as increasing the predictive system’s accuracy.[5]

We appear to treat artistic, literary, and cinematic works simultaneously 1) as communications, where accuracy in judging interlocutor intent is valuable, and 2) as maps or models of reality, which is perhaps why we also use words like “authenticity” and “truthiness” in talking about art, or why a work which doesn’t “ring true” is written off. Predictive processing is a way of explaining our attraction to both types of artistic ambiguity, that is, those which play off our understanding of artworks as communications and those which play off our understanding of artworks as reality-training inputs. Insofar as we (often unconsciously) see works as reality models, or eligible inputs in the brain’s predictive training set for reality testing, we look for models which upend, qualify, or otherwise add nuance to any in the system’s current set of all top-down predictions. If a work or a part of a work does not “ring true” or “resonate,” it is dismissed by the predictive processing system so as not to contaminate learning. To use neural network terms: Upon recognizing some kind of fundamental difference between the underlying logic or grammar of the work and the underlying logic or grammar of previously interpreted reality, the brain excludes the stimulus from its training set; the input-space is filtered and constrained by network assessments.[6] While resonance is a necessary heuristic, it is a poor one. Things are resonant not in that they seem true based on the sum of one’s real previous experiences (such a thing does not exist in an objective form), but in relation to our interpretations of triaged previous experiences. Because resonance involves calculations based on interpretations rather than some inaccessible “reality,” bias is frequently reaffirmed, and valuable radical updates are dismissed as implausible while minor updates in the wrong direction can “ring true.”

Artistic ambiguity is stimulating because it is non-redundant input, because it signals a “minority probability” may be more likely than previously assumed. We can see this play out consciously, at a macro level, such as when Rectify’s ex-convict stands seemingly menacingly in the door, only to become a complete non-threat. The ambiguity as to his threat-level is contradicted in a way which affirms the recessive probability instead of the dominant probability. (I say “recessive” and “dominant” because high risk can skew minority probabilities into dominant sensation. When the risk of a false negative, i.e. physical violence at the hands of the ex-convict if he is misidentified as a non-threat, is more harmful to the subject than the risk entailed by a false positive, i.e. social faux pas or general guardedness, the brain will veer on the side of general alertness.)

What this amounts to is that interpretation, contra cheap quotes from Sontag, is an essential part of all artistic experiences. The process of interpretation is literally unavoidable, a prerequisite of both any legible visual structure (and therefore of perception) or any linguistic grammar. Our more conscious and deliberative interpretive work (what is typically referred to as “interpretation” in literary theory) is merely a way of dealing with less automatic thematic, ethical, or narrative grammars and structures. Ambiguity — whether it complicates conscious or unconscious interpretive processes — is one of the most rewarding forms of informational stimulus, exploiting our predictive processing system by slipping under the cover of resonance and posing as valuable newness.


[1] Sometimes this sentence structure stretches and flattens the dynamicism of unfolding events. Other times the disparity between event and delivery is too much; it is like an elastic band under pressure, able only to stretch so far; Nulick is asking too much of the reader; the whiplash knocks him over. One passage in particular stands out, on his brother’s imprisonment. It is the day after Christmas. Nulick, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend have been smoking crack:

We walked through fields of creosote and mica [as children]. We pushed a Tonka truck through the muddy yard. We listened to records on a Sansui. [My brother] was a gentle boy. He became a soft-spoken man. Somewhere in between is the brother who is now in prison. I have lost my brother, but he has lost everything. His girlfriend, his daughter, his life.

*   *   *

There was a fire. Four people died. My brother was taken away after the bodies were found. A list of the dead —

*   *   *

My brother’s girlfriend. My brother’s baby daughter. My brother’s girlfriend’s cousin. The cousin’s boyfriend.

[2] The justice system is built on hermeneutic cycles, hunches informing the interpretation of new discoveries informing the confirmation or revision of original hunch. Most of those involved in Paulie’s small-town legal systempractice too much deductive head-hunting, starting with hunches and then staying put. This is the opposite of discovery or learning; it is confirmation bias and interpretive double-downs. If this seems obviously bad practice, consider that its more subtle analogy in reading and literary interpretation is all too common.

[3] Some of the 237 interviewees, e.g. moon-landing conspiracists, believe that the motivations for Kubrick to hide the hints in his film are similar to those advocated by Pinker in “The Logic of Indirect Speech”: plausible deniability, game theoretic strategy, and coordination games.

[4] Partial support for the ideas about perception and predictive processing comes from throughout Van de Cruys and Wagemans’s “Putting reward in art.” Also from that paper:

At the heart of predictive coding is the concern for ease (efficiency) of processing. As described earlier, neural resources needed for processing predictable stimuli are minimized, as our system gradually becomes optimized to the statistics of our natural perceptual environment. (1037)

Being able to successfully predict is another obvious evolutionary advantage, as it allows animals not only to react after the fact to stimuli that change the internal milieu (homeostasis) but also to prepare (anticipate and compensate) for those that are very likely to ensue. Thus, homeostasis urges organisms that can walk around and manipulate their environment to take a predictive stance. (1037)

If the visual system manages to find a sparse explanation of previously unpredictable stimuli, this genuinely appears to feel good. (1039)

[5] Often, mismatch between a high-confidence prediction and reality (e.g. expecting an object to behave one way and it behaving the opposite, e.g. expecting a table to hold steady and instead it collapsing in on itself) can produce anxiety, an unpleasant rather than pleasant sensation. Van de Cruys and Wageman on Mandler, 2003: “…conflicts between expectations and actual circumstances create arousal because they signal important changes in the environment that must be acted upon. Depending on the cognitive context and the situation, the arousal is subsequently evaluated in positive or negative.” Here, part of the “context” or “situation” is both the general set of expectations set by interacting with a work, as well as possibly an understanding that no action must be taken in response to “important changes in the environment” of the work. It seems that on some level, even as much as one “mistakenly” views an artwork as a valuable map of reality to “train” on, the artwork is still cordoned off as a minimal consequence training stimulus, a zone of low-risk and therefore low-anxiety/high-reward learning.

[6] We can also partially explain why critical opinions prioritize ethical ambiguity or nuance. Typically, when we talk about a work lacking ethical seriousness and depth, we mean that it does not mirror the complexity of the reality it claims to represent, or that it does not add nuance to the current “conversation” [the “conversation” being a construct equivalent to “what we currently believe, based on what we have been exposed to, is relevant context in an ethical inquiry” — again, a sort of signal/noise distinction]. In other words, it is informationally redundant to what we already believe, ethically, and insofar as ethics are “learned” through training, these [relative to the subject] non-deep treatments lack learning value.



William Basinski, The Distintegration Loops

Brian Boyd, “Nabokov’s Butterflies” for The Atlantic

“The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not. You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle…

Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing —a poor thing, but our own. In my view, the more literary the book — the more purely verbal crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep — the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have.” (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: