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About Secret Ballet

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At first view, ‘Secret Ballet’ looks looks like an easy-to-read autobiography of a conservative politician named Jane Swallow. The book covers Jane's messy private and family life, her creative ambitions, her personal intrigues and sexual affairs and her attempts at political mud-slinging and character assassination that are occasionally accompanied by pangs of guilt.

However, this is neither a common autobiography nor a fictional novel simply employing such a form as an aesthetic device. ‘Secret Ballet’ was not authored in the usual sense—it was composed from the repertory of over 90.000 example sentences included in an English language dictionary.

What triggered this work was the discovery that certain proper names surface again and again across dictionary example sentences, suggesting the idea of a common source. It seemed clear enough that fragments of several longer texts are dispersed over the huge body of examples. This led to the idea that the whole dictionary could be seen as an exploded novel that reconstructed, would offer a material key to reality—or rather, sum up the ideology that constructs a certain period as reality.

The source of all sentences is the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary of 1987, which then broke new ground by extensively demonstrating word usage in real (unedited) example sentences. These sentences were taken from the 'Bank of English': a huge online repository of texts ranging from journalism and technical writing to biography and fiction. It also included transcribed recordings of actual spoken language.

These example sentences are anything but neutral. Many bear the imprint of political struggle and emancipatory intent, reflecting the time in which they originated as well as, possibly, the political leanings of the dictionary editors. Since all realms of life are represented, the text reflects in a stochastic and material way the Seventies and early Eighties from which most sentences originate.

The text of 'Secret Ballet' has grown in the following fashion. At the very beginning, sentences were aggregated through purposeful browsing. "A glow of light appeared over the sea" was one of the first sentences. New sentences to add were then found through aimless browsing, sometimes by looking up other terms from the same semantic context. A kind of resonance of each sentence on the author's memory of the entire text more or less immediately identified the context where it might best fit. If there was no resonance, the sentence was skipped, perhaps to be included at a later stage of assembly. Then, a linear reading of dictionary example sentences replaced browsing. Every sentence that would fit somehow was included. As the diversity of topics increased, there were also more fitting places to insert example sentences.

This mode of writing does not allow authorship in the traditional sense. The sentence that the author may crave for to continue a certain part of narration is invariably impossible to find. The author cannot write according to his intentions—instead, sentences find the place where they belong. The plot expands like a leavened dough, but in an unpredictable fashion. On a higher plane of composition, there is a return of a sense of mediated authorship and intentionality.

Dictionary example sentences are by definition conventional since they strive for maximum redundancy. While a mode of writing based on resonance brings together things that are alike, it subverts conventionality at the same time. The tension between heterogenous sources makes itself felt as ambiguity even where sentences are tied together through narrative or synactical integration.

So what about the story of ‘Secret Ballet’, the plot? It does not know what is happening to it. It is at the same time erratic and unevenly paced; it cherishes clichés as if it could escape from a pervasive paranoia of totality into some singular narrow-minded refuge of meaning. The characters rise and fall; they rant and bicker, are later disillusioned or get old or mad, and a few of them will be dead before the story comes to an end.

There is also an older, longer 'about' text available.

Last update: 16 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint