D is for Distraction

An Alphabetical Essay by Andrew White


This essay serves as an experiment in Academic writing, utilizing an array of stylistic approaches in an attempt to examine the essence of language, linearity, and distraction.


Andrew White is an MA  candidate in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. When he isn’t struggling with life’s unanswerable questions, Andrew can be found playing with his pet guinea pigs.


(or Dirigible)1

Essay by Andrew White

How this work was written: rung by rung, according as chance would offer a
narrow foothold, and always like someone who scales dangerous heights and
never allows himself a moment to look around, for fear of becoming dizzy (but
also because he would save for the end the full force of the panorama opening
out to him).
Walter Benjamin, 460

Without utilizing, or waxing eloquent about the potential of, new technologies, Robert Ray’s essay “The ABC of Visual Theory” serves as an experimental work that examines the interconnectivity of typography, language, and thought while challenging traditional notions of formatting and linearity. In the piece, Ray pays homage to Barthes, Brecht, and several other theorists who have experimented with academic writing. Neglected by Ray, but highly influential to my own process, are additional theorists such as Benjamin and Debord.

Arbitrary– the very nature of everything you are about to read, and perhaps everything that has preceded it. 2
1 It really doesn’t matter. I find dirigible to be the most fascinating word in the English language, and that is why it is in my title. I could just as easily have gone with, dandelion, donut, dickhead, a proper noun like David (a good Christian name), or even a relevant theorist such as Derrida.
2 The author of this piece recommends that it be read in any order, at any pace, and in any setting that catches your fancy. He gives readers his utmost assurances that the text will remain just as incomprehensible regardless.
3 Neither this piece, nor Ray’s, would likely exist without the considerable contributions made by Roland Barthes. I could spend a great deal of time analyzing the work of both he and other theorists in a conventional manner but, since Barthes himself was afflicted by boredom (which he expressed both directly and through a general rejection of conventional academic writing), I would be doing his memory a disservice by writing about him in a conventional manner.

G, H, J, K, N, O, P, T, U, V, X, Y, Z — As I write, these are the entries I have still to begin.

Why waste the letter “G,” which surely could be put to better use?


Jaffe, Ira– Author of Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Distraction (2014). As the title of his book indicates, Jaffe views slow cinema as a counter to the cinema of distraction.6 Upon first glance, such a movement would appear diametrically opposed to the purposes of this exercise. However, upon further examination, slow cinema is, similarly to this piece, a challenge to the status quo. In a cinematic landscape which reflects our increasingly globalized culture, excess and speed have taken over. Hollywood has little room for that which doesn’t conform to its standards, much like the current state of academia.


Kotányi, Attila– A Hungarian philosopher whose presence in this piece serves two purposes:

  1. To provide an entry for the letter ‘K’
  2. As a member of the Situationist International, he provides an opportunity to introduce Guy Debord.

Guy Debord was perhaps the most well-known member of the Situationist International, largely thanks to work such as The Society of the Spectacle and “Theory of the Dérive.”  In the latter, Debord defines dérive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” Dérives involve “playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll” (Debord, 1).


Linearity– A, B, C………why not E, T, F? Why must the alphabet be presented in said order? I assure you that this piece was not written in such a manner, although I am undoubtedly presenting it in such a way.

4 Again, I have become bored with what I am writing and am consequently facing distraction. Instead of procrastinating, however, I am making the conscious decision to continue. I’ve found that the very prospect of discussing the oft repressive and yawn inducing limitations of traditional academic writing is in itself repressive and boring, so I’ve chosen to instead move on to footnotes. I have something of an obsession with footnotes, which stems largely from the writings of David Foster Wallace. His use of the footnote is itself rather experimental, as it is not typically utilized as a way of citing a reference, but as a sort of aside. These footnotes are frequently insightful, hilarious, and are (in my opinion) the most distinguishing characteristic of the author’s writing. I myself frequently and unapologetically attempt to emulate Wallace. Sometimes I use the footnote in attempt to stave off boredom, similarly to the way Ray describes the Hardy Boys cover illustrations and chapter breaks. Other times, the footnote is used to expand upon an idea in a way that may not fit smoothly into my prose. Regardless of the purpose, I almost always try to insert a bit of humor, and I am even prone to insert footnotes purely for comedic effect. (Note: As I have been unable to discover a way of placing a footnote within a footnote, the following will have to suffice.)  4.5 I have been informed by an esteemed mentor that there is actually a great deal of humor in some academic writing, much of it preceding David Foster Wallace. To paraphrase said mentor, who first cited Derrida as a scholar who creatively used footnotes and humor, there are examples of humor in academic writing, but they are often lost because people–including some academics–find it difficult to imagine academic writing as humorous.
5 I, for one, find it hysterical that the largest block of text in this document is contained within a footnote. This highlights the somewhat perverse joy I find in the written word, both in terms of its visual and textual presentation. I believe that Ray does an excellent job of conveying the potential of the written word, and thus challenges any belief that we must look beyond (to digital technology, new media, etc.) in order to create anything new and exciting. On the other end of the spectrum, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style can be viewed as a response to traditionalists, who believe that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do everything. There are countless ways of telling a story or approaching any sort of creative and/or academic endeavor; why should the approach used to accomplish said endeavor be regulated when it is only the outcome that truly matters?
6 In other words: mainstream or Hollywood cinema, a cinema of action
MultiMedia — Audio or visual, physical or digital, written or spoken word…… All were once kept separate from one another. With the advent of cinema, a purely visual medium was invented. After a few short decades, sound was added, and thus cinema had “evolved” into a multimedium. The lasting, tangible product of cinema, film stock, remained the standard canvas on which the artist placed his or her brush for a century. And then came the so-called “digital revolution,” largely antiquating film stock and arguably robbing cinema of its physical representation. Purists continuously cry that this apparent death of celluloid can be equated with the death of cinema. But, if one follows this line of reasoning, cinema would have been killed decades ago by the introduction of sound….. Or perhaps as a result of one of the countless advances in technology that provided for greater mobility, color photography, or changes in focus. If cinema were to die at the hands of digital technology, it could only mean that the multimedium had survived the previously mentioned wounds, as well as countless others. Could digital technology be cinema’s only weakness, its Achilles Heel? Or is a proverbial mountain being made out of a molehill?

Neutral– Students are typically taught to take a more Neutral or Objective stance in their academic writing. I, on the other hand, have always reveled any opportunity to express myself.


Originality– A concept that many have grappled with over the ages. As an homage to the likes of Barthes, Apollinaire, Ray, and many others, this piece can never be truly original, but is truly original thought even possible?


8 Which also contains a radioactive source and a poison that will only be released when said source emits radiation. There is no definite way of knowing if and when the radiation will emit, setting off a chain reaction that will ultimately result in the cat’s death.

Questioning the quality of this work, and further debating its merits, I am in danger of falling into a trap that has silenced far too many writers: scrapping an idea for fear that it will be rejected by its audience.

Rubric- I have always found the rubric to be both reassuring and repressive. On the one hand, I have a better idea of what is expected; on the other, it limits my creativity. Is there any definite way to simultaneously solve both of these drawbacks?

Rubric for ABC Assignment

Percentage Assignment Category Exemplary (5) Good (4) Adequate (3) Poor/Incomplete (2-0)
60% 1.   All 26  letters of the English alphabet  must be covered. Exceeded requirement; proper format Met requirement; most properly formatted Met requirement; few properly formatted Did not meet requirement; few properly formatted
20% 2.   Edits are to be limited only to those which enhance clarity, correct typos and assorted grammatical errors, relate to formatting, or consist of anything thought up by the author at a later date.9 Outstanding Good with minor mistakes Some major problems Many consistent and major problems
20% 3.   As a way of providing readers with as close to an ‘authentic’10 experience as possible, there are to be ABSOLUTELY NO revisions or excisions of the basic sentiment or focus of a given passage, regardless of how ill-advised it may seem in retrospect. Excellent and consistent application of style Mostly consistent application of style Emerging application of style Lacks application of style

9 Obviously, the author thought of nothing else.

10 Whatever the hell that word means.

Self– awareness, reflection, confidence, doubt…… The self is the one constant in these, and perhaps any, workings of the human mind. Should there not be a place in Academia11 where the scholar might reveal the inner workings of her/his own mind, and therefore reach a heightened state of awareness through reflection?12

Time — There never seems to be enough of it, does there? Too few hours in a day, days in a week, weeks in a month, months in a year, years in a decade, decades in a century, centuries in a millennium. . . . . .  Despite this, I continuously waste my time with insignificant exercises. And what of the time taken to construct this exercise? Undoubtedly, with any creative work, the time taken to produce it can never parallel the time needed to consume it. Even Andy Warhol’s 485 minute Empire (1964), which was filmed in one night and consists of only a single static shot, distorts time. Not only does viewing the film fail to account for pre- and post-production time, but the potential for manipulating frame rates provides further opportunity to distort notions of time and linearity.
11 The primary concern of which, I would argue, is to enrich and enlighten the human mind.

12 Or is such a suggestion purely self serving? If I am fully aware that the passage at hand, and perhaps even the piece as a whole, may be interpreted as pretentious or even narcissistic, then why would I willingly choose such a path? The answer is quite simple: I am again challenging traditional notions of academia, specifically those that force the writer to cater to an audience. If every writer, filmmaker, musician, or painter produced work which was constructed solely to appease the audience, then creativity and experimentation would be hopelessly suppressed. Risks would not be taken and the sculptor would be unable to differentiate her own work from that of another.

13 The English language is incredibly confusing when it comes to pronunciation, and much of this could be averted if everything was written phonetically. Then again, what about homonyms? Without a way to differentiate between there, there, and there….I mean there, their, and they’re. Perhaps the only solution is a complete overhaul of the language, assuring that no two words are pronounced or spelt the same. This would be a flawless line of reasoning, were it not for the fact that such a sudden and gargantuan shift in the standards of written and spoken words would fling society into complete and utter chaos. Thus, the powers of language in both written and spoken form are revealed.
What — On Earth to do when you can’t think of anything good for “A”? As hinted with linearity, one does not simply stop, they just move onto something else. Hence, L for linearity and W for what.14


In order to find a word for the letter X, I regrettably had to open a dictionary to that section of the alphabet.15 Upon doing so, I discovered that there are no words in the English language beginning with the letter X.
Yesterday I wrote this” — As presented in written form, and with no further context, such a statement can never be true or even humanly possible. From the writer’s perspective, the line could not have been written yesterday because……it would have been written yesterday.16

According to Walter Benjamin, “everything one is thinking at a specific moment in time must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand” (Benjamin, 456). Of course, this is impossible.17 One can never record the present, because it is only possible to capture the past. Further still, one can never capture the past as it was in the present. Memories fade, are distorted by individual biases…..The very possibility of an objective past or present is called into question.

14 It could be easily argued that I am struggling with this project and that, as a way of filling space and completing the alphabet, simply inserting arbitrary information as a way of compensating. On the other hand, this admittedly arbitrary exercise may actually be a sneaky way of pointing out the arbitrary nature of the alphabet, linearity, and the very constraints we place on Academic Writing. Arbitrary……… I do believe I’ve found my ‘A’ word.

15 This is a lie, I actually simply did a google search for ‘words beginning with the letter x.’ 15.5 This is also a lie. The writing of the letter X segment was written before any research had been done. 15.75 In truth, no research ever took place. The author simply found it comical to make further use of footnotes within footnotes. Note to self: a footnote within a footnote should henceforth be referred to as a ‘toenote.’ This being a footnote within a footnote within a footnote, it shall be called a ‘toenail note.’

16 If you find yourself thoroughly confused, I assure you that this confusion is rivaled by that of the author of this piece. I leave you with this hastily written note, which was never intended to be published: “How can I incorporate these notes into the piece? That’s something my future self will need to figure out. Or is it my past self? I suppose that depends on when this is being read, by whom, and in what context.”

17 at least if time is considered as strictly linear.

Zurich — is the largest city in Switzerland, and for some reason I can’t get the word out of my head. It has no relevance to this project, so I can only surmise that its continued recurrence is my subconscious’ way of coming up with a word for the letter Z.

“the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favorable to our purposes. We can say, then, that the randomness of a dérive is fundamentally different from that of the stroll, but also that the first psychogeographical attractions discovered by derivers may tend to fixate them around new habitual axes, to which they will constantly be drawn back” (Debord, 1-2).

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Debord, Guy. “Theory of the Dérive.” Trans. Ken Knabb. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/314. (Orig. published in French 1956.)

Ray, Robert B. “The ABC of Visual Theory” Visible Language 23:4 (1988) (423-447).