The OF Blog: Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Shaun Duke of The World in the Satin Bag

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rabid Squirrel Interro-view: Shaun Duke of The World in the Satin Bag

After a months-long series of questions sent back and forth (punctuated with longeurs due to the two people being teachers, among other things), here is the fourth and to-date longest installment in my now-irregular series of interviews with certain lit/SF/F reviewers/bloggers.  I've known Shaun for several years now and the questions asked and answered reflect certain topics he and I have discussed, either separately or in friendly banter, over the years.  Hope you enjoy this and visit his blog to see more of his writings and thoughts.

If I recall, you started your blog, The World in the Satin Bag, as more of a writing blog than a review one.  How have your original plans for blogging changed over the years?
It's true that I began WISB as a place to babble about writing and more particularly as a place where I started to experiment on novel writing.  I was one of hundreds of bloggers posting chapters in some absurd attempt to find some fans; eventually, finishing the novel became the priority (and rightly so, since I had not, at that time, finished a novel).  Now?  I see myself more as a contributor of commentary with occasional reviews, primarily on SF/F-related subjects.  A lot of that change has come with my involvement in the subject of your next question.  The more embedded I become in academia, the more my blogging desires shift.  I still write the occasional traditionally-fannish post from time to time, but I think most of my blog posts are a reflection of where I am in my secret identity as a scholar.  I suspect the blog will always be a space for talking about my writing, but not in the same way as when I began this whole venture.

Do you ever find yourself reading older posts and wondering just what in the world you were thinking when you wrote that review or commentary?

The thoughts that actually go through my head when I read old reviews or old "favorite books" posts can best be described with the classic Internet abbreviation "WTF."  I've had a few moments where I've looked at some of that old crap and wondered how I could have been that stupid.  What compelled me to say X?  Why did I think Y?  How did I honestly say that book was "good" when it’s clearly little more than mediocre?

But leaving that stuff up is important.  Without it, I'd never know how far I've come as a writer.  We need that kind of retrospection sometimes.

I see that you are a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Florida.  Are you planning on a career in academia or will the Ph.D. be used in a different fashion?

I do plan to become a teacher and researcher at the college level after completing my Ph.D.  Whether that actually happens will depend a great deal on factors over which I have no control:  the economy, job availability, etc.  I'm not sure what I'd be happy doing with my degree if I can't get a job as a professor of literature.  There are all kinds of other jobs for folks like me, but they all feel like the sort of crap I went to college to avoid.  Literature is my passion.  Teaching literature is also my passion.  And I'm going to do it or live in my mother's basement until one of us kicks it.

Does that passion for teaching literature extend to poetry?  Having taught secondary school literature, grammar, and history for several years, I would think that would be one of the most challenging things to teach.  Would you agree?

Actually, I've had the opposite experience.  Poetry used to be a difficult medium for me, both as a reader and as a teacher.  Lately, however, I've found myself drawn to poetry in my intro to literature courses, as they elicit some of the best responses from my students.  Two of my favorite poems to teach are "l(a" by e.e. cummings and "Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller.  The cummings is great for introducing students to semiotics and poetry's ability to manipulate language and convey complex ideas in few words.  The latter is a poem my students can go on and on about, particular as they start to realize that the imagery is drawn from Monet's actual paintings.  In the past, I've avoided poetry, but these days, I'm much more willing to use the form in my lit classes precisely because I can actually get students to talk about the stuff.  You could say I've developed a passion for poetry in the last year or so.

That said, if you stick me with some T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams, I'm trapped.  Modernist poetry, in particular, is one of the more difficult mediums to teach.

Why is that so (so asks the person who struggled with Williams 20 years ago)?  Is it more the stripping of narrative down beyond what the Symbolists did, or is it something else?

I think my students find modernist poetry so difficult because it frequently seems obsessively abstract.  You call it “stripping the narrative down,” which I suppose is the same thing.  When you give them something like Andrew Marvell or William Shakespeare (just to pick two enormous, obvious classic examples), they can get through the language easily enough to the message.  “To His Coy Mistress” isn’t terrible difficult to parse once they get the right nudge and can start putting the pieces together.  But if I throw in some “Prufock” (Eliot) or “Red Wheelbarrow” (Williams), they can’t seem to parse the images or the language as easily, and that has a lot to do with the abstraction.  They’ll simply say “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” but what they mean is “I can’t figure out what the images are referring to” or “I’m not sure how these seemingly random thoughts coalesce into a larger thing.”  They’re looking for messages or examinations of a possibly pre-defined thing, because that’s really how they think anyway.  That’s how a lot of music is these days, and that’s really where they get most of their poetry anyway (if you want to call it that).

It’s not a bad thing, per se.  A lot of the problem also stems from a lack of analytical skills, which, in my experience, seems to have been discarded in the K-12 educational system where I live.  You really need those for poetry, I think.

Who are some of the literary influences on you, both as a critic and as a writer?

That's a huge question!  I'm likely going to leave a lot of people out in what follows, so you can ask me this question again in a year.

As a writer, I've been influenced a great deal by Tobias S. Buckell, Franz Kafka, Nalo Hopkinson, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, Lauren Beukes, and Octavia Butler, just to name a few.  Since most of what I write falls quite clearly within the realm of genre, it makes sense that my subject matter would be influenced by the types of people I like to read.  And if not for all the World SF writers I've been reading the last few years, I don't think I'd have the guts to try my hand at writing stories from the perspectives of people who aren't like myself.

Style, however, is a different matter entirely.  For that, you'd have to look to Thomas Pynchon, David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie, Brian Francis Slattery, and Kurt Vonnegut.  There are others, of course, but these writers are directly responsible for making me reconsider how I construct sentences and narrative in fiction.  I suspect if I get this weird novel of mine published, people will say it bears traces of all of the writers I've mentioned in this paragraph.  Some of the work I've published thus far comes from my "early period," though; most of what I was reading (for fun) five or six years ago would probably have put me in that not-so-adventurous crowd.  These days, it's an entirely different story.

Critical influences are a tad different.  I don't think I've been directly influenced as a critic by any literary works, with exception perhaps to Philip K. Dick, who was the subject of an independent study I conducted as an undergraduate.  Most of my critical influences come from theoretical arenas.  Folks like Samuel R. Delany, Jacques Derrida, C.L.R. James, Homi Bhabha, Tom Moylan, Fredric Jameson, and many (many) others have all changed how I actually look at literary works, even when my only intention is to write a standard review.  Entertainment value is rarely the main concern for me when I look at a work of literature, in part because any boob can write a book with exciting action.  What matters to me are the things underneath the glossy finish.  That's where the meat of the work rests, I think.  Call me pretentious if you like...

What are specific things from these writers and critics that you may perhaps have "borrowed" or adapted to suit your own writings?

While I don't always understand what the hell Derrida is talking about, some of his later work influenced my understanding of animals (The Animal That Therefore I Am) or politics (Rogues).  In terms of the latter, I tend to associate some of my opinions about how the U.S. operates on Derrida's concept of the rogue state (i.e., the true rogue state is the one that calls others rogue states, despite violating the very same rules it says the rogue states have violated -- that's a horrible reduction; so it goes).  Homi Bhabha falls into the same camp.  His essay on mimicry and colonialism has had a profound influence on how I view colonial discourse, as it has on the postcolonial studies field since his book, The Location of Culture, hit shelves.  Ditto for C.L.R. James, though I must admit that I've been more influenced by his fiction writing than his political stuff.

Delany, Moylan, and Jameson have all complicated my views of science fiction.  I recently read Delany's Stardboard Wine, which I think provides a much more inclusive and useful definition of SF than, say, Darko Suvin.  "Definition" is not quite accurate, though, as Starboard Wine is really about applying a definition in practice rather than trying to actually set up its parameters in explicit terms.  It's sort of an attempt to put words to the "I know it when I see it" claim, I suppose.  Jameson and Moylan are both prominent writers on the subjects of utopia, and it's from them that I get my complicated understanding of the utopia/dystopia splice (and the idea that science fiction is a spatial genre -- via Jameson).  If I teach a utopian story in one of my lit classes, I often have to use the Jameson/Moylan playbook to get students off of the mythic form we've always expected, as utopia is never about creating "perfect worlds," but more accurately about imagining "better worlds" than the author's present.

Though I am not directly working with all of these writers, their perspectives and writing styles have influenced the way I approach academic writing.  You might say I've become a little braver than I was as a lowly undergrad.

Also, in regards to theory, what thoughts occur to you when you read of a reviewer (and very occasionally, a writer - Brandon Sanderson strangely comes to mind) who refers to a work as being "postmodernist?"  Any urges to use différance in a response to those who bandy about "postmodern" or "deconstruction" cavalierly? 

Two quick things:

  1. I've never been convinced that postmodernism actually exists in anything other than a socio-political or global capitalist form (i.e., Jameson, et. al.).  For that reason, I really have a hard time describing just what postmodernism "is" in literary terms.
  2. When people talk about postmodernism, I'm not sure they know what postmodernism is either.  

When Sanderson's post came out, I spent most of my time reading it figuratively scratching my head.  I don't think of his work as remotely non-traditional, which is what we tend to mean when we say "this is postmodern."  Postmodern seems to have become the term we use to describe things that seem different; in reality, the differences we're picking up on aren't indicative of some kind of generic or literary shift in form, style, etc.  Modernism has a fairly defined literary canon and a set of principles or conditions by which we can judge something as modernist; it's not a hard-and-fast type thing, but at least we can say "Faulkner and T.S. Eliot are modernist writers because of X, Y, and Z."  The only time I think I get close to seeing something postmodernist is when I read John Barth (I recommend "Lost in the Funhouse"), whose work is so self-conscious about the process of writing that it breaks the literary fourth wall to expose the artificiality of narrative itself (seriously, read that story).  But is he really a postmodernist?  I teach him as such, but only so I can explain to students what postmodernism might look like if it actually existed.

So, I'm naturally skeptical of someone who says "my work is postmodernist" or "this work is postmodernist," because such statements rarely contain clearly defined parameters that differentiate a work from something that is decidedly not postmodernist.  If anything, postmodernism is just what modernism became after WW2, and that's not really a hard line either.

I'm not going to touch différance here.  Derrida's explanation and use of that term still hurts my head...

So in other words, "postmodernism" probably should be limited more to Western/Western-influenced literary cultures?  After all, there perhaps could be a big debate over what constitutes "modernity" in the first place if the context is removed from the first industrialized/mass producing nations and placed within a post-colonial society.  Thoughts?

When I originally wrote my response to the previous question, I knew I would get a little flack for focusing so heavily on the West.  That’s a legitimate problem in our discussions of postmodernism (“our” as in “academics” and “cultural theorists”).  I don’t want to speak from a position of authority on other parts of the world, as I don’t know nearly enough about those places to say for certain how postmodernism in its Western form has affected them, or what postmodernist movements might look like in places like Brazil and so on.  You could certainly argue without controversy that the West has had a profound influence on much of the world through globalization (one of the many components of postmodernism) and so on (colonization before that, too).

And I also agree with you, or the implication behind your question, that “modernity” is a thoroughly problematic concept.  One of the things that was pointed out to me some years ago by a few lovely Brazilians was the idiocy behind terms like “the first world” and “the third world” or “developed” or “developing.”  Frequently, these terms assume the West (particularly the United States) as the default position.  You are “developed” or “first world” when you look like America.  But this assumes that a “developing” or “undeveloped” country (or “second” and “third world”) will become like the U.S., or that it must in order to be considered “modern.”  I think it’s fair to say that’s total bunk, and something which many previously marked “third world” or “developing” countries have shown is simply false.  Look at parts of South America.  A lot of those places have been told by the U.S. for decades that if they do X, things will go to shit, and it will be their own fault for not buying into the capitalist rhetoric of America.  I’m not going to pretend that everything is hunky dory down there, but some of those places are nationalizing resources or finding unique ways to address their various issues.  They’re coming up with different answers to these problems (some work; some don’t; so it goes).  I’ve started to think that maybe the U.S. needs to start becoming more like some of these other places in the world, if not in whole, than at least in part.  Melting pot and all that, right?

That’s a sort of reductive view, obviously, so hopefully someone with more knowledge and authority on this issue can jump in with some more nuanced and cogent thoughts.  The point is this:  it’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of the West, wherein modernity and postmodernity are definitively Western developments.  When you live here, it’s sort of bashed into you in some way or another (though perhaps not in those terms).  But we should really look at how these terms apply to other parts of the world.  What does (post)modernity look like in, say, Yemen or Chile or Tunisia?  I don’t know.  But I want to.

How has social media made an impact on you, both personally and professionally?

There's one thing social media has made possible for me on a personal level:  the ability to maintain close friendships with people who live on the other side of the country.  I currently live in Florida (meh), but some of my closest friends are in California.  If not for Facebook, Skype, and so on, I don't think we'd have the same relationships we have now that I’ve skipped town for graduate school.  It's also made it possible to keep in touch with family.  I'm sure folks did just fine maintaining relationships and what not with little more than a telephone, but I grew up in the Age of the Internet, so the way I see the world isn't the same (just as all these freshman students of mine don't look at the world the same way I do because of 9/11 -- I still remember going through security in the airport without having a ticket).

As a professional, social media makes it a lot easier to network with other scholars (or writers) and to maintain a dialogue with fans, Internet friends, and so on.  I feel like it's a lot easier to engage in my desired field now that we have all these tools at our disposal, though that's not always a good thing.  The Internet has this uncanny ability to depress the hell out of me.  Information disseminates so quickly and widely these days.  If you follow politics as much as I do, you'll understand.  It's just a sea of douchebaggery out there.

Have there been times where the sea of information online threatens to overwhelm you?  If so, what are your defense mechanisms?

Absolutely.  I occasionally go on moratoriums from politics precisely because the sea of information becomes too much.  The problem, as I see it, concerns the type of information that is transmitted.  More often than not, all we see on the net are stories about people doing things most of us wouldn't like.  And when that's all you're seeing every hour of every day, I think it's perfectly natural to want to take a break from it all.  Hence the moratoriums.  I also tried to do this whole "Month of Joy" thing on my blog, in which I invited folks to talk about things that make them happy in SF/F (favorite books, books that got them into genre, etc.).  It was a nice gesture, but the second I came back to the political side of the web, I was reminded of the nonstop onslaught of douchebaggery, fear, horror, and bad news all over the place.  I'm sure there's a connection between the Internet and the polarization of politics in the U.S., but I'm not a sociologist...

What about the threat of there being an "echo chamber" developing out of limitations on who/what is followed or read?  Could that be something that occasionally happens when discussing particular books or films?

The echo chamber already exists in SF/F.  Most of the vocal, definitively right wing authors have found communities for themselves on Facebook or Baen or elsewhere.  That’s partly their fault, and partly the fault of SF/F’s left-leaning tendency, and partly the fault of a culture which has become increasingly antagonistic.  It’s just easier to segregate oneself by choice when the alternative is constant confrontation.

The echo chamber problem is actually a pretty terrible thing.  Something Tad Williams said on a recent episode of Adventures in Scifi Publishing seems particularly poignant here.  Creating an echo chamber for oneself, whether deliberately because you refuse to interact with those who disagree or because those around you produce a hostile environment for anyone who has a disagreement, actually makes it easier for politically likeminded groups to radicalize.  You can see this clearly in U.S. politics, where groups on the left have created little pockets where they rant and rave about how evil the right is, etc.  And there’s also that recent example of a right wing Christian group who publicly stated they now have the authority to kill President Obama (I’m assuming this wasn’t a hoax).  None of that is a good thing.  It cuts off dialogue between disparate groups and creates an environment where we can’t actually find common ground, wherever it may be.

But I suspect part of your interest in this subject isn’t political.  On that front, I do think there are echo chambers in literature and film which work in similar ways.  If you think about the insular nature of SF/F for example, in which there is still this feeling that “this is our thing” and anyone who isn’t part of that shouldn’t get to play in the pool with us.  I don’t buy that, but there’s a feeling in certain parts of the genre where that’s true.  It used to be the “literary vs. genre” debate, but it’s since become a kind of territorial thing.  Granted, that’s not the whole of SF/F, but every so often there’ll be a bunch of blog posts and rambles about the subject.  The same thing happens between SF and romance, in which the feeling among some is akin to “you’re putting dirty romantic tinglies in my scifi, and I don’t like it.”  And since these groups don’t really talk to each other as much as they should, there’s not as much dialogue about the issues with this sort of cross genre work as one would hope.  Thus, you end up with echo chambers.  Some of that might not be such a bad thing, though.  If a whole bunch of people like the big pool, but some people prefer the sauna, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with everyone playing where they like.

I’m sure that happens in other fields of literary production, too, though I’ll admit ignorance to that, as I’m fairly embedded in the SF/F field (broadly speaking).  But if you take a gander through the world of theory, well, there are echo chambers everywhere.  Marxists in literary studies tend to be fairly isolated into their own little universe, for example.

I've seen you talk about your love of comics several times over the years.  What is it about them that appeals to you?  I ask as someone who rarely read any comics growing up and can barely understand their appeal.

This question has actually been the hardest for me to answer.  I've read a lot of visual narratives during the course of my academic studies, of course, and I even had a manga phase about six years ago.  There are some exceptional works in the comic/graphic novel world, too, such as Art Spiegelman's Maus or even something like Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira.  But these are exceptions, as I think they're good regardless of one's opinion of visual narratives (though I could be wrong on that front).

So I thought I'd have a really clever explanation for their appeal, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what draws me to comics has less to do with some quality unique to the art form than some nostalgic longing for childhood.  Most of what I'm reading right now is what you might call the standards:  Marvel and DC superhero comics.  Many of these comics are tied to things I was reading as a kid:  X-Men and so on.
I can't say whether anything I'm reading right now is "good" in any kind of academic or critical sense.  To be honest, I've intentionally shut down my critical faculties while reading a lot of these DC/Marvel properties (though my brain continues to work).  And I did so because I think it's sometimes important to have things you enjoy that have nothing to do with what you do for a living.  For an academic whose field actually includes things like comics and graphic novels, I want to maintain a degree of separation between work and play.  Comics are basically play.  I'll let some other folks take them on in the discourses of academia!

Fair enough, but you mention a "nostalgic longing for childhood."  Would it be a fair critique of recent cinematic adaptations of comics and pop cultural references to superheroes to say that this nostalgia-driven wave of comics-inspired media is more a rejection of current socio-cultural trends, or is there something else going on?  

I'm not so sure the rise of the comic book movie is in response to or driven by nostalgia, or necessarily a rejection of current socio-cultural trends (the graying world, etc.).  In large respect, many of the comic book movies that have come out have actually sucked ideas from the comics (many of which are, in fact, embedded in a worldview that has long since become irrelevant) only to re-invent them in a more contemporary world.  The Christopher Nolan Batman films, for example, are very much "of the contemporary moment," dealing with terrorism, what it means to be a hero who exists outside of the law, and so on.  Sure, the villains are almost always easily identified as pure villains, but in this cinematic universe, Batman often has to defeat them without breaking his own set of ethical codes, which he learns often means he can't get the job done (in The Dark Knight, for example, he basically becomes a one-man NSA in order to track the Joker; we're supposed to feel rather ambiguous about that, just as we are about the Joker's moral ferry dilemma).  Similar issues have appeared in the Iron Man films, which deal with terrorism, the military industrial complex, the long term consequences of one's actions (as America has learned recently), and even PTSD.

But I agree that there are a lot of comic book movies which play into that nostalgia.  The new Superman movie tries to get outside of that by putting him into a dirty, morally ambiguous world, but at the end of the day, he is still raised up as an ideal to which we should all strive.  And sometimes that feels good, don't you think?

True, but part of the "nostalgia" I have noticed is related to perceived ideal gender roles.  Take the women portrayed in recent films.  Are they more or less just idealized male views of what an "exceptional" woman would be?  

I can’t disagree with you there.  There are exceptions to the rule, of course (Katniss from The Hunger Games), but the general trend still holds the male gaze as central to the visual discourse of gender.  There’s a lot of that in the comics movies, too, though I think the attempt to add depth to Black Widow in The Avengers was a good way to extract her from her original role as eye candy.  But she’s still very much coded within the male gaze, even when she’s using that gaze against the people who have become her targets.  I’m not convinced that’s a tremendously positive image, as it still preserves the male gaze and suggests, to me, that you just have to work around it to get on with life.  Maybe I’m an idealist…

And so some of that nostalgia for these sorts of things may also be a nostalgia for what the world used to be like, which I think is amusing when you take a comic book company like Marvel and look at what it has been doing in the last few years.  I think things are changing for the better.  We are seeing more role models for young girls and more challenges to the traditional gender paradigms which have governed our society as a whole.  And I think you’ll see a lot more of those challenges appear in the comic films produced by Marvel in the coming years.  DC, on the other hand…

In addition to your literary studies/teaching and blogging, you also have embraced podcasting.  What are some of the challenges in podcasting that are not found in blogging?

I still have no idea how one builds an audience without making it obvious that you're trying to build an audience.  That's probably the biggest challenge.

Actually, setting aside all of the technical issues, spreading awareness, and so on, the most difficult aspects of podcasting are trying to come up with a format that works for me (and my crew) and learning how to actually perform those things properly.  When we first started the show, our interviews and discussions were incredibly awkward.  We weren't good at bouncing off of one another or bouncing off of what the guests were saying.  There really is a kind of "art" to interviewing via audio, and you can't learn it without doing it over and over and over and trying to learn from your mistakes.  And since most listeners are passive, you have to rely on friends and yourself for figuring out where you're not doing a good enough job.  That's tough as hell to do (as fiction writers will tell you about editing, I'm sure).

Podcasting is really important to me for a lot of personal reasons, so it is just as important that what I/we do on the podcast is to the best of our ability in that moment, and that we continue to strive for better interviews, better discussions, better topics, etc. over time.

Is podcasting more ephemeral than blogging in terms of how it better captures a "moment" in a larger discussion of an issue, but with much less staying power in terms of people considering what is discussed?

I’ve actually wondered this very thing before.  There are all these podcasts about all kinds of things, but are they actually contributing to our knowledge as individuals or as a culture?  Or do they simply regurgitate something we can all forget about in a few months, however important?  I like to think that podcasts has a lot of staying power, but I also think that much of what we do in podcasting is not all that different from other forms of media.  I can’t remember who said that we live in an ADD media era.  Everything is so painfully current, as if the past and the future have lost their allure or value.  That’s a sort of hyperbolic way of looking at things, I suppose.

That said, podcasting used to be invisible.  Now?  The Guardian has a bunch.  Slate, too.  Many of the newspapers have podcasts.  Radio programs now deliver as podcasts.  You can download all kinds of TV interviews and the like as video and radio podcasts.  Basically, it’s one of the major mediums by which we get information, and that’s certainly got to have some larger impact on the wider culture, right?

Lately, there have been attempts to define (and create "spaces" within) this nebulous entity labeled as "fandom."  When you see "fandom" being discussed, whether on Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, or blogs, how do you define it?  Is the term a positive, negative, or something else?

I tend to think of fandom as simply a collection of individuals who share a greater interest in a thing than would be considered average among the general populace and who demonstrate that interest through engagement with or discussion about it.  Someone who collects stamps is a fan.  Someone who collects Star Wars toys is a fan.  Someone who goes to every Quentin Tarantino movie even if it’s on a topic they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy is a fan.  Someone who reads like a mad man is a fan of literature (or some subset therein).

And how one engages in fandom is varied.  There aren’t very many distinctions between “fan” and “not fan” for me.  This is partly why I get really irritated when people try to carve out what they consider “proper fandom” within a specific field.  For example, I’ve heard people in SF/F define academics as “not fans.”  I find this perplexing because most academics I know who study SF/F are undeniably fans.  They love the genre.  Many of them probably started out as traditional fans before they discovered they could study the genres in college.  And I’m a fan.  A big fan.  Have been since I was a little kid watching cartoons on Saturday mornings.  Just because I now engage with SF/F within academia doesn’t change the fact that I am a fan, and to carve out my section of fandom to create some sort of arbitrary “right fan group” seems like cultish behavior to me.

As for your last question, I think that depends on your perspective.  For me, “fandom” is a positive.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with loving something enough to collect things related to it or to repeatedly engage within its field of influence because of that interest.  Sure, some people might get a tad obsessive, but if there’s nothing wrong with being an avid reader, then I don’t see anything wrong with loving the heck out of stamps or Firefly or Shakespeare or French Troubadour poets.

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