Networks and Labyrinths
Edited by Shanti Lara Giovannetti-Singh
From X-Men to Gilmore Girls and Lord of the Flies to trees and the latest Tik Tok trend: An enquiry (see stream of semi-conscious thought) into how and why we love to recognise references.
“Watch YellowJackets,” my coworker tells me, “it's like Lord of the Flies meets Cheer.” Cheer sounds like Cher, ‘do you believe in life after love?’ Clueless, actually.
Is this a Lorelei Gilmore tribute piece? No. Should it be? Maybe. More on that later.
This is an article about networks. Specifically, those networks of recognition and affiliation through which we interpret, engage with, and communicate about the world around us. The article's opening is a brief example of what I mean: exemplifying the rapid-fire connections we make, the neural networks we build, associating what a friend might say and the millions of references to literature, art and general media that are constantly presented to, and permeate, our consciousness. There are few among us who haven’t said “oh this reminds me of [insert book/song/TV show/ (increasingly) Tik Tok here]” during a conversation with friends. With my friends at least, these webs of connection expand exponentially — enough to rapidly derail even our best efforts to focus on any single topic.
Networks and the human brain, Cerebro in X-men, WAI in The Start Up Wife — the former an amplifier, the latter an imitator, an AI app designed (by Cyrus, no not the Great — though The Great is, conveniently, a great show) to replicate algorithmically a previously uniquely human capacity for abstract connection.
If you happen to have read The Start Up Wife, or watched Gilmore Girls or YellowJackets, you are probably far more inclined to continue reading this article than those who have not. Why? Because we have a hardwired inclination towards things with which we experience familiarity. Whether this familiarity derives from being a member of a particularly devoted fandom, or due to personal representation within a work of art or literature — in general we tend to like what we know. And, accordingly, and cyclically, know what we like. A self-perpetuating Catch-22, if you will. Yet, even when in conscious rebellion against this practice (and its proclivity to generate literary echo-chambers) — reading and watching and listening to things at total, curated, random — hopelessly complicated networks of connection still form. This is because our perception of the world is informed and, in many ways, limited by our unique past experiences: everything we have watched, read, seen or heard before.
For example, despite the resounding differences between Anna Burn’s historical-fiction novel Milkman, and the TV show Atypical, I found in both a deeply relatable and common theme. For reference, Milkman follows an anonymous protagonist through the Troubles in 1970s Belfast and Atypical is a great coming of age show which follows the family of Sam, a teenager on the autistic spectrum. The two really don't have much in common. However, both the narrator of Milkman, and Casey, Sam’s sister in Atypical, love running…until they don’t. In these two vastly different works, and, in each case, due to extremely different reasons, there is a pivotal decision made by a character to stop doing the thing — running — that not only forms a significant part of their identity, but brings them joy. I likely only associate these two characters, because I also shared this experience. (You’ll be relieved to know that after some key plot twists and character development, Casey, Milkman’s anonymous narrator and I all regained their — our — enjoyment of the sport.)
The protagonist of Milkman also happens to love reading while walking. This habit renders them largely oblivious to the happenings around them, to the concern and consternation of nearly everyone they know. Similar in practice, but different in effect, to the chronic case of reading-while-walking exhibited by Rory Gilmore.
Rory Gilmore, daughter of Lorelei Gilmore, the eponymous Gilmore Girls, if you will (not to be mistaken with the Gilmore Guys – some pretty funny guys who really liked the original show) are widely recognised as the universal champions of abundant and abstract literary references.
Aside: the Gilmore Guys referred to Lorelei as a prototype of the ‘adorkable’ protagonist—see Zoey Deschanelle—I see it.
Someone else, far more dedicated than myself, counted how many books alone (leaving aside theatre, song and movie references) were referenced throughout Gilmore Girls: 339. Frankly, a crazy amount. Again, I ask, why?
Why did the writers of The Simpsons, Gilmore Girls, Parks and Rec, and later, the iconic character that is Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi in Community (though also guest starring in Gilmore Girls season six and seven!) go to such lengths to include this elaborate network of often very dated literary, cinematic, and musical pop-culture references? I think the answer lies in the same reason that Television quiz shows like Only Connect (that operate on the basis of needing to find the connections between seemingly unrelated prompts) are so popular. Everyone loves being able to recognise references, and the more obscure and esoteric the reference, the more satisfactory we find the recognition.
Are you Satisfied? (Marina) “I will never be satisfied.” (LMM) …Adding Hamilton, Moana, Encanto etc. to my Spotify queue.
The references we make and the connections we form between these not only brings personal satisfaction, but can operate as a “social barometer” – helping us identify people we share common interests, likes and dislikes with. Making abstract references and having people recognise these, or recognising abstract references made by another, for example, makes us feel part of a community, a network – now mostly referred to as fandoms. The joy of such networks is that where you find people with whom you share a common frame of reference, communication becomes seamless: less time is wasted explaining specific points since a single reference will suffice. These networks and friendships built on shared artistic interests offer a great non algorithmic way to expand your frame of reference and preferences, especially through recommendations. Personalised recommendations, whether hand-picked reading lists, suggested movies or a curated playlist, are to me symbolic of deep interpersonal connection. They move above and beyond the assumption that another person will enjoy something simply because you do. Instead, they demonstrate a holistic awareness of things and themes that another likes, based on recognising and responding to their engagement with literary and artistic media and providing an entirely unique set of recommendations through the connections you personally make with what you know of their interests.
A friend recently made me a playlist and the first song featured is Imposter by Pearl Charles. The lyrics open with: “Never look into the mirror, They always say that’s your first mistake”. My friend didn’t know this at the time, but their recommendations were near perfect – mirrors feature heavily throughout my favourite pop culture references. I’ll Be Your Mirror by the Velvet Underground happens to be one of my favourite songs. Unsurprisingly, it’s full of references to reflections. Beyond the Glass – a roller coaster of an autobiographical novel – also happens to be one of my favourite books. Appropriately perhaps, it charts the psychological state of its protagonist through their altering reflection. Beyond the Glass is the final of four semi-autobiographical books by Antonia White. In her first book, Frost in May, (very similar but less existential than Simone de Beauvoir’s recently, and posthumously, published novel Les Inseparables), she references Alice in Wonderland over four times, though the novel itself is only around 200 pages – her own fascination with mirrors and reflections finding early articulation through reference to Lewis Caroll’s. Perhaps, were I less attuned to the networks of mirrors lacing my favourite pieces of art, this isn’t something I would have noticed. And, coincidentally, without this information my friend happened to select the singularly most perfect lyrics to open their playlist for me.
Alice in Wonderland. (The Cheshire Cat — which also happens to be the name of a B&B in Gilmore Girls s2.04) Wonderland. Taylor Swift. My best friend’s playlist: “Into the Taylorverse” – yes just like the multiverse – cue Spiderman pointing meme. Spiderman. Andrew Garfield. Tick, Tick Boom. Jonathan Larson. Rent. Tango Maureen – a bop. La Vie Boheme – another bop. “WINE AND BEER”. Also, Jonathon Larson really liked writing songs about the bohemian lifestyle, didn’t he? Back to Tick Tick Boom – love, love, loved the Hamilton girls, André De Shields and MJ Rodriguez performing Sunday. MJ Rodriguez – a legend. Pose – incredible. Elektra Abundance – exquisite. Named after Euripides’ Elektra? I’m not sure. I prefer Medea anyways, though Antigone is good too. Have you heard of Homefire? It’s a contemporary retelling of Antigone in London, and it is…fire!
Talking of fire, and I hate to say it, but season eight of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones, the books more so than the show, exemplify a distinct genre which operates on the very basis of our love of intricate networks and how things connect within them. Specifically, I mean the style of storytelling that jumps between the narrative arcs of different characters, seemingly separated by time or space, only to reveal piece by piece how their relationships have always been converging and their storylines overlap. Other recent examples of this style include Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other and the Grishaverse books by Leigh Bardugo. Do you think of Kaz, Inej and Jesper when you see crows – the girls who get it get it and the girls who girlnt gornt – and this leads me to the final question I want to ask in this article (to which I definitely don’t know the answer). Does drawing incessant connections between art and life enhance or inhibit our potential to engage with and appreciate our environment?
For example, recently I was on a guided nature walk and we were invited to sit quietly and reflect upon what was moving and what was motionless in the park scene around us. While I really enjoyed sitting still for a few minutes, immersed in the nature of Russell Square, my mind was far from quiet. When I looked at the (then bare) Winter trees I thought immediately of M C Escher’s Puddle print. When crows crossed this frame, squawking ominously in the drizzle, I thought of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, though of course Six of Crows would have been a far more current and book-Tok approved thing to think of. When we were invited to pick a tree and have a good long look at it, I began thinking about how the scars and texture of bark look exactly like a healing gash on a knee – then getting preoccupied about where I had read a similar comparison. Also, when trees drop twigs and these are decomposed and reabsorbed by the soil at their roots, is that like the tree equivalent of biting your nails? Asking for a friend. Stickman, the eponymous hero of Julia Donaldson’s (best known for The Gruffalo) children's book also came to mind ( – I have nieces). After several minutes of these thoughts I started to panic that I had failed the task we had been set: to simply be, be at one with, and appreciate the nature around us. But now, I’m not sure.
(Escher, Puddle, 1952)
I am certain that, were we to try, we are all very capable of looking at a tree and seeing simply a tree. But, why do so, when instead we can look at a tree and visualise in our mind’s eye a kaleidoscopic infinity of trees and like references, generated by recollection to past exposure to poems, songs, documentaries (and the rest) instead? Surely our capacity for recollection and abstract connection to generate ever growing networks of references is one of the miracles of the human mind. I believe that this propensity to connection, to look at one thing and see it refracted into unlimited shades of (dis)similarity to other items in our memory, and thereafter categorise it in a perpetually expanding network of associations enhances our experience of the world, wouldn’t you agree?
All 339 Books Referenced In "Gilmore Girls" (buzzfeed.com)
You can google the rest ;)