February 2002 Archives

Get your motor running...

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John Kay, Bakersfield Civic Auditorium 1975

Get your motor running . . .

I’ve been following with great interest thus far the commentary on On the Road at In a Dark Time. In particular, Diane’s isolation of the themes and Loren’s observations on the geography involved made me think about how difficult it is to capture the past, because as humans we are constantly shifting in perspective. That is definitely the case with my perception of the book and I wish I had time to read it again right now. I’ve been trying to figure out how old I was when I first read it, but I’m pretty sure I was sixteen. It was around the time I took the photograph displayed above, which was 1975.

It was the first concert I ever attended— Steppenwolf at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium with probably around 4-5,000 people in attendance. I felt like I did fairly well for a rookie. I’d been taking pictures less than six months, and I borrowed an old Mamiya Sekor 1000DTL with a telephoto lens from school. I picked it because it had a spot meter. Good choice, I found out. Concert photography, especially in big arenas, is tough.

Who knew that about 13 years later I’d be photographing a dozen bands a week? Photographing this concert convinced me that I didn’t want to do it anymore; it was too much work. For the thousands of concerts I went to in the dozen years that followed this, I never took a camera. I just enjoyed the show. That is, until I discovered that photographing musicians in bars rather than stadiums had its own rewards. But that part of my history is well documented in the galleries around here. I was thinking about how much I loved Steppenwolf as a kid. I was thinking how this became almost an embarrassment when punk-rock rolled around. Punk rock changed my life. The Minutemen pushed me over the edge; I turned my back on “hard rock” around 1984.

On the Road is like that for me too. It became a guilty pleasure, once I discovered how incredible and complex literature could be. The beats were just, well, a beat— the pulsation of an artery— as Blake would say, which seemed like a lifetime in the long trip down the road of discovery for me. I’d say the same for the Surrealists. These things, for me now, are self-defeating delusions of youth. A sort of “rite of passage.” I grew out of them, but I remember them fondly. There’s much more to say, and I have entries in my head concerning Kerouac, Robert Frank, and Herman Hesse. These were like towns I passed through on my way down the road.

The omnipresence of that road, in that so many people of my age ended up on it, is astounding. I took an upper level history course on US History 1945-80 a few years ago, and it shifted my thinking about the late 50s and early 60s significantly regarding the motivation that so many have felt to hit the road. I’d like to apply that lens to some of the problems with On the Road but I have a headache too severe to attempt it right now. But I stumbled across the photo of Steppenwolf, at the far edge of this mess of thoughts, and it was strange. The last mix tape I made for my car included a song from John Kay’s 1972 solo album Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes.

I bought the album for 50 cents at a massive album sale in the mid 80s, and several of my friends made fun of me for it. But I still had a soft spot in my heart for the guy in leather pants, even though I was smarter then. A girl I knew told me a story about how John Kay was an asshole who slobbered all over her at the Country Club in LA, and turned several shades of green when I said I liked the album. This album wasn’t “born to be wild,” just moving folk-rock. A song from it has been playing in the car for weeks now, and I feel strangely close to “Many a Mile.” It has a bit of the spirit of On the Road

I’ve damn near walked this world around—another city, another town
Another friend to say goodbye— another time to sit and cry
And it’s many a mile I have been on this road
It’s many a mile I have gone.

I’ve seen your towns they’re all the same— the only difference is in the name
And the only life I’ve ever known has been my suitcase and the open road
And it’s many a mile I have been on this road
It’s many a mile I have gone.

There was a girl who knew me best— you know she gave my poor heart rest
She was my world, my joy, my dear— and now she’s gone to god knows where
And it’s many a mile I have been on this road
It’s many a mile I have gone.

So I fill my glass up to the brim
And through my glass the world looks dim
But I know outside there’s light somewhere
Maybe my rambling will take me there
And it’s many a mile I have been on this road
It’s many a mile I will go.

The road, in the Kerouacian sense, ended in the seventies. This song was written by a Native American named Patrick Sky in the sixties. The road became a commodified dream, and there isn’t much looking back. That’s progress for you. The quest has moved inward once again, and in most ways, it’s a better thing. But there is an incredible nostalgia to it, but anyone who aspires to dreams such as these needs to be reminded of the perceptive observation of Bob Dylan: nostalgia is death.

Spike Milligan, RIP

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A Milliganimal

Envoi

Tyger Tyger burning bright,

Look out! You'll set the jungle alight.

A belated thank-you to Louise(from Wales) for the book of Milliganimals, a happy memory with the recent passing of Spike Milligan.

Photography and Baudelaire

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Photography and Baudelaire

Something else has been nagging at me this week that I wanted to explore. Last Friday, Jim Hart cited and commented briefly on an article called Paradoxes of Painting. I wrote a short comment on his site, and noticed that shortly afterward this article was flying high on Blogdex. Being the closet anti-social type that I am, I decided that I wouldn't expand that comment into a documented entry since so many other people were apparently talking about it.

Then on Monday, Jonathan Delecour added some significant commentary from the perspective of a photographer, closing with words that just rang for me:

Fifteen years later, I have no idea whether the images were art or not. But they certainly met the need that Kafka wrote about for "those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us." The only reason the pictures had such energy was that I had utterly lost interest in photography as art.
I wrote an incredibly long comment in response, and then promptly lost it due to my failure to provide an email address (I hate spam, and I give my site address since it includes an anti-spam email link). I thought his response to the old cliché debate about photography as art was just spot on. I can't remember everything I said at the time, but I decided today to come back to the issues raised by the article, because either it's an incredible coincidence, or it's out and out intellectual plagiarism. I revisited Charles Baudelaire’s 1859 essay on photography today.

Paradoxes of Painting begins:
It is a terrible time for painting, but a marvellous time for painters. Compare today with (say) the 1950s. Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse were names that wielded Hollywood glamour with the public.
Baudelaire’s essay begins:
During this lamentable period, a new industry arose which contributed not a little to conform stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind.

The “divine” which Baudelaire is speaking of is the art of painting, the “industry,” photography. During his time, photographs of prostitutes sold for more money than the prostitutes themselves. The commodification of desire which he addresses in this essay is much the same as the idolatry we now place on the memory of painters of the past. The battleground is that of mechanical reproduction which displaces and removes the “aura” from art, an issue taken up by one of Baudelaire’s most perceptive readers, Walter Benjamin, nearly a century later. But Benjamin gives full credit to his source.

Baudelaire observes, almost prophetically:

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate each other with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet on the same road one of them has to give place. If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether, thanks to the stupidity of the multitude that is its natural ally. It is time, then, for a return it to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts— but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature.
At this time, photography was barely twenty years old. He asserts that photography is an aid to memory primarily, which could also be said of the written word vs. the spoken one. It’s a technology, and nothing more. The presence of the “divine” quality of art lies outside the medium used to create it. Baudelaire issued a rallying cry for a return to the core capabilities of photography:

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is disolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory— it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach on the domain on the impalpable and the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely on the addition of something from a man’s soul, then it will be much the worse for us!

Baudelaire’s core argument was much the same as the Prospect Magazine article. One only need substitute the “postmodern smirk” with the “idolatrous mob” and the plagiarism is perfectly symmetrical. Baudelaire later softened his perspective, claiming that photography liberated painting. Baudelaire was there first, and he deserves the real credit for the majority of concepts in that article. There was nothing original, save a comparison with photography’s effectiveness as an art medium with the power of a potato chip to knock a man down. To say this, in the context of an unrealized part of Baudelaire’s argument, is to chase fervently into the realm of the ridiculous.

Recall that Baudelaire compared photography to shorthand or printing. If we deny the camera as an artistic medium, following this logic, we must also reject the book. You’d have to read the writers longhand in order to experience transcendence from literature. Printing then, could be declared ineffectual, a “potato chip in the wind.”

Transcendence does not reside in any object, but in the soul. Intending transcendence does not by necessity assure its presence, either in a painting or a photograph. In fact, like Jonathan, I find it to be an impediment to its attainment. To argue over the “validity” of technology is just the same crisis which Baudelaire cites regarding poetry and progress. Progress will usually win, in the short term. It will create anxiety, as exemplified by Baudelaire’s initial response and the latecomer article in Prospect magazine, but like Shelley, I think poetry is a force that will never be denied for long. Baudelaire didn't spend much more space than this single essay critiquing the capability of photography in the hands of a capable artist. He accepted it, eventually.

The questions implied in the Prospect Magazine article were hardly fresh or innovative. It's just that same reactionary response to the challenge of technology that goes round and round. Then people forget about it and just use it, for whatever ends they like. It wouldn't have bothered me as much if it wasn't such a blatant case of theft of ideas.

The real paradox to me is how such shoddy scholarship passes for fresh news.

David

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David, on his Triumph, done back when I was in that arty manipulation phase.

Lefts

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David bought a Triumph 750.

It was beat-up, but strong. My brother had a BSA 650, but it was broken down. I think it spent more time in pieces than it did together. My best friend, Dan, had a Honda 350. I had ridden it many times before, and I thought I knew how to handle a motorcycle. David offered to let me ride his brand new used Triumph.

”I’ve got to warn you, the suspension is really stiff. I like it that way, so I can do wheelies” David said.

“Sure, I can handle it,” I said with typical youthful enthusiasm.

“Just be really careful as you ease out on the clutch,” my brother said.

“This bike is a bit more powerful than you’re used to.”

As I sat on the bike, I knew something was different. It was about half the size of my friends Honda 350, but a lot heavier. It nearly tipped over right after I straddled it. I was to pull out of the driveway, and make a 90 degree turn onto the road in front of the house. I figured I would take it around the block. It was a country block, about a mile on each side and our house sat in the center, a half-mile from the first intersection.

I eased out on the clutch, and in the blink of an eye I was on the dirt on the other side of the road.

”Just lean the direction you want to go” my brother shouted.

I immediately pulled back on the clutch and barely twitched my shoulder toward the road, and I was off. I was really scared as I shifted into second. I looked down at the speedometer, and just my little twitch of power in first had me going almost 30 miles per hour. I hit second, and gave it a little gas. Forty-five. I had just shifted into third, saw that I was already going 60 as the stop sign approached. I stopped at the intersection, and held my breath as I tried to turn again.

This time was smoother. I took it up to around 80 and enjoyed the feeling for only a few moments before I was at the next stop sign. As I approached the third turn, I wasn’t taking any chances. There was no stop sign, so I was just going to make a gentle turn at around 20 mph.

No sooner than I started to lean, ever so slightly, the bike went that direction. It felt really good as I banked into it. But then, abruptly, the bike flew out from under me. That flash of fright came back. The bike was fine, I was fine, it was just so damn embarrassing. I wasn’t hardly moving at all, what the hell happened? I kicked the bike over and it started right up. I just dusted myself off and took it home without further incident. I told everyone about it, being the honest idiot I was. They all laughed. I was glad they weren’t there to see it.

This was the summer between high school and college, and I lusted after one of those machines for the longest time. It was just pure speed, in a tiny little package. I could really see how people could become addicted to riding. But photography was just too expensive an obsession, and I never managed to own both a motorcycle and a camera. It’s probably a good thing, after cataloguing the injuries that my brother inflicted on himself because of his bike.

I later found out that in order to stiffen the suspension, David had removed the springs from one side of the front-end and substituted a broom handle. Just one side, mind you, so that’s what made this bike so squirrelly in the turns. Right turns were no problem, but lefts...

David didn’t care. He really just enjoyed popping wheelies.

Thorazine

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David was crazy.

I don’t mean in the On the Road, beatnik friend, crazy personality, kind of way. I mean it in the clinical sense. I don’t think he started out that way, it was induced by overuse of a drug called PCP (an animal tranquilizer). He just loved the stuff. He snorted it, in powder form, constantly. It wasn’t really the “magic dust” it was cracked up to be.

I tried it some, when I was at the age where the Who’s 5:15 was my theme song. I was “out of my brain on the train” more than a few times for treks to San Francisco on the Amtrack. But PCP was a drug with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, as far as I was concerned. Just a little too much, once, was all it took for me to become a Reaganite and just say no. I couldn’t feel anything anymore, but I could think. And all those thoughts were paranoid. I thought that if I closed my eyes I would die. Sight was the only faculty that was still working as I lay paralyzed and paranoid, after running to every room of the house to look out the window and see if "they" were coming to get me.

I never understood David. He was my brother’s wife’s brother, and though he claimed that the brotherhood reached out to me there was always something sinister back behind him. He would rip off anyone with no trace of conscience. As I said, he was crazy. After a number of sociopathic episodes, he was diagnosed as a paranoid psychotic. They gave him thorazine. As a confirmed drug lover, he was anxious to spread them around to all of his friends, particularly if he could trade them for dust. My brother said, “It’s kind of a weird high, wanna try it?” Ever the experimentalist, I had to give it a go.

Thorazine was actually quite a lot like PCP in bodily effects, with only one important difference. It makes thinking a very unprofitable proposition. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t think of anything. It was one of the scariest drugs I’ve ever done. I’ve never felt so voided, so non-human in my life. Not an experience I’d like to repeat. Though the drug was milder than PCP in most ways, I just cannot imagine existing for an extended length of time without having thoughts. There isn’t anything on the planet scarier to me.

A few nights ago, I woke up with that feeling. There wasn’t a thought in my head. I couldn’t remember any dreams, I hadn’t written anything in my sleep, I was just a void. It made me think of thorazine. I thought about visiting friends in ward 3b of Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield after they had been sedated with thorazine as a matter of standard practice. I thought about how much they didn’t even seem like people I knew at first. They were just there, taking up space. It seems to me that thought is the primary quality of human existence, and to be deprived of it is a darker place than any jail. For a second, I thought of David.

He beat his mother, and held some of his siblings hostage before he was finally interred. I didn’t visit him. David wasn’t a friend of mine. He was just there. Taking up space. Something not quite human, but not quite animal. Someone with chemistry gone horribly wrong. I don’t know what happened to him, but I feel fairly certain it wasn’t good.

I made up my mind to put those thoughts out of my head, and write about the one positive memory of David I can think of. I’ll do that a little later. There was a picture, and a first for me on that day. It was a crossroads time, where I could have gone a certain direction, but didn’t. I went to college instead. Though that path ended quickly, at least it diverted me from the realm of thoughtlessness.

I don’t think there is anything worse in life than experiencing thoughtlessness, either as a witness, or as a victim of it. I can’t universally condemn drugs, but some drugs, I can.

No thorazine thoughtlessness for me, thank you. Even the memory of it was chilling.

Bakersfield

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Bakersfield, California, again

Bakersfield (my "hometown") is such an icon. I forgot about the reference in On the Road until In a Dark Time mentioned it. I read that book for the first time in Milt's Coffee Shop, just off highway 99 in Bakersfield. If you've read it, or haven't and want to, Loren's running commentary is a good thing. Give it a try, while you anxiously await Shauny's return. I must say, 72 comments must be some sort of personal blog record.

Though I hate Tom Hanks, I was also pleased to see that in Castaway his salvation came in the form of a portable toilet from Bakersfield. That's the poetic nature of the town, really. It may seem like a pile of dirt and shit, but it's always there when you need it.

Off to school!

Rhetorical theorists

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For those in search of more academic content

I’ve been struggling for the past couple of days with summaries of three rhetorical theorists. So, rather than tie up the blog with them I decided to put them up separately. Corrections, emendations, and comments are welcome.

My favorite is Protagoras, sort of the grand old man of rhetoric as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, most of what we know about him is filtered through Plato, but I think his point of view is best identified in the modern context with Habermas. Bear in mind that these were written as simple two page summaries, not exhaustive critiques.

But if you’ve been curious about what I’ve been up to, or have any interest in rhetorical theory, I think they were a fun little project. The sources aren’t attributed, but there is a huge pile of books about to swallow me that fed into this thing. Some of the concepts are difficult to express simply, but I hope I did all right.

I woke up with memories of thorazine, and thought about writing an entry about that but it had to wait until I finished this stuff up. Maybe later, but I have class tonight and papers to critique. For now, this is the only new content I can offer.

Eyes Adrift

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Musical interlude

I burned a bunch of MP3s to CD to free up space, and the juxtapositions are often interesting when you just pop one of those disks in and hit play. First up was The City Waites Pills to Purge Melancholy: Lewd Songs and Low Ballads from the 18th century. I’d highly recommend this one to anyone who has a taste for the bizarre and/or the 18th century. But then, I was right back where I started.


Silence is better than nothing.

I can’t wait for the Eyes Adrift album to come out. Yeah, so I’m into survivors. Krist (from Nirvana) and Curt (from the Meat Puppets) and Bud (from Sublime) seem to be on to something.

Silence and nothing are not the same thing.

Listening to the SF gig, I was especially taken by Solid.


that’s what I am
a plastic man
gazing out
across a plastic land
and everyone
is just a thing
sit and listen
to bells of plastic ring
and I’m a genius
at doing something wrong
using real words
in made up songs
I could cut myself
and nothing would come out
cause the blood is frozen solid in my veins
but you know by now I could cut myself
because I’m solid and it’s always been that way


here’s a song
that I sing
an imitation
of the real thing
here’s a time
does it pass?
here’s the sand frozen in the hourglass
touch my skin
know that I can feel
I can’t tell you
if feeling’s real
I could cut myself
and nothing would come out
cause the blood is frozen solid in my veins
but you know by now I could cut myself
because I’m solid and it’s always been that way

After spending hours writing a capsule summary of Protagoras, this makes far too much sense to me. He saw the world as plastic, and men as plastic, living in a world of constant flux. He refused to argue about the presence of gods, or the validity of sensations. His response was to say that man can only judge the world in relation to his perceptions of it. It doesn’t matter if feelings are “real” or not; we can only make the best decisions we can based on what evidence we have within our reach.

Writing fixes a moment, nothing more. I’m not nearly so depressive as it might seem (right now at least), but even if I were— I could cut myself because I’m solid and I’ve always been that way. Thanks Curt!

There are a lot more Meat Puppets live gigs at The Meat Puppets Repository.

Angels and Devils

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there are always a few angels hanging out in shop windows

Disclaimer

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Disclaimer:

You have stumbled onto the blog of just another white guy who needs to get laid.

{Blatant personal content meant to discourage my oddly growing readership}

When I was a kid, I was a science-geek who was always making strange smells in the garage. Some of them nearly killed me, like making mustard gas and turning a half-horsepower motor into a spin painting machine. Okay, so the machine wasn’t the problem. It was the 220-volt shock that knocked me half-way across the garage.

When I got to high school, at first I was a math geek who won lots of awards in an event called “leap-frog” where if you couldn’t solve a problem, you could pass it to a partner. My partner was a tall girl named Marilyn who was much smarter than I was. No sports trophies on the mantelpiece for me, mine were all in math. I also hung out with the theater crowd because of my newly developed affinity for electricity (and smoking dope on the roof of the building). I was a lighting technician. Though I was often asked to read lines, I never tried to act. I loved to watch and I also loved crawling around narrow passages in high places, plugging things in. I loved to watch so much that I became a photographer. I had a job filming football games in 16mm and I never bothered to tell them that the letter on my jacket was for theater. My writing was so poor that I couldn’t take literature classes. I cheated by getting my photography teacher to help me understand Blake and Milton.

In community college, I was sucked into the Art department. Poor writing skills made the study of literature impossible; they actually wouldn't let me in. The real lesson to be learned in any art department is: “Why are you wasting your time here when you could be out making art?” So, rather than becoming a productive well-paid geek, I became a starving geek. I took their lessons to heart and dropped out.

Fast-forward through twenty years of making photographs and studying art history. Loving and losing, living in my car and doing lots of drugs, getting married, raising a teen-age instant family, and then flirting briefly with becoming a computer-geek long before there was an Internet, but then going back to what I thought I did best— making photographs. Then the big mistake: I started reading literature again. Fast-forward through life-changing cataclysm where the loving and losing part takes over again. Slow-motion through my entry into a medium-sized university with an amazingly dedicated English department. Fast-forward through a fairly chaotic Rhetoric program which improved my writing skills enough to make me feel confident, so confident in fact that I ended up in the master’s program standing on the other side of the room trying to improve other people’s writing.

So much for a monolithic notion of self. How do you put those pieces together (and there are many more, actually) into a picture of a rather eclectic person who scrawls out barely readable prose out on a wide variety of topics each day?

I’m thinking that the mustard gas and shock treatment had as much to do with it as anything.

Color Discord

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Discord

The later Victorian poets paved the way for the triumph of the symbol, pushed to its limits into the symbol-mongering of high Modernism. While it is fun stuff, when the symbol becomes a cipher, a stand-in for real experience, I have to draw the line. Yeats is unique to me in that respect, because he danced upon the edge of mythos and symbol. When you fall off the edge, art becomes math.

Continuing to meditate on color today, I stepped back into the symbolist den. Some of the systems that evolved were compelling. I revisited Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In the translator’s preface to the Dover edition, Michael Sadler relates that in genealogical terms, Kandinsky is seen as the heir to Gaugin, while Picasso is heir to Cézanne.

The distinction, as Sadler sees it, is the distinction between the realist and the symbolist. The forgone conclusion is that “realists” cannot be spiritual, and unless a case is made for Cézanne as a religious painter, Picasso cannot stand with Kandinsky as a “prophet of an art of spiritual harmony.” I don’t think that he would want to be grouped with those in search of harmony. Picasso’s universe is dynamic and full of unrest; I find it more “human” and closer to the world as I know it. Mystics are in constant search for a system. Kandinsky saw color as a field to build such a system.

At the outset, he recognizes the futility cataloguing the effects of color:

There are many examples of color working that refuse to be classified. A Dresden doctor relates of one of his patients, whom he designates as “an exceptionally sensitive person,” that could not eat of a certain sauce without tasting “blue,” i.e. without experiencing a feeling of seeing a blue color. It would be possible to suggest, by way of explanation of this, that in highly sensitive people, the way to the soul is so direct and the soul so impressionable, that any impression of taste communicates immediately to the soul, and thence to the other organs of sense (in this case the eyes). This would imply an echo or reverberation, such as occurs sometimes in musical instruments which, without being touched, sound in harmony with some other instrument struck at the moment.

I spent a short period of time playing with color photography. I was always overcome by blue. The distinction between shades was never right, and the film just collapsed the melody that I saw with my eyes. I just gave up on the whole idea. I could train my brain to process what would happen when I recorded something on black and white film, but color film never resonated with the colors I felt in my mind. Perhaps there was just too much feedback going on, reducing everything to a fuzz-tone. I wanted to be true to the blues, and I found it best to do that in black and white.

I like Kandinsky’s concept of color as movement, which he expressed it in a Yeats-like diagram:




As is the case with most of these things, it starts from antitheses. Kandinsky and Yeats both saw absolute white and absolute black as discord. There is concord in their opposition of subjective and objective. There is a similar spinning motion involved. However, Kandinsky sets the motion of blue in an inward direction, concentric, as compared to the external, or ex-centric motion of yellow. Kandinsky cuts to the core of color as both a centrifugal and centripetal force.

Kandinsky also treats color rhetorically, as an "appeal" to either a spectator, or to an internal spiritual state. His distinction heralds a higher version of Modernism and its notion of the value of rhetoric. Yeats described the process of persuasion in typically pithy fashion: "A rhetorician writes to convince others. A poet writes to convince himself." In Kandinsky's version, the self is absent. It has been replaced by an abstract spirit, for Kandinsky claims that art should reach to a higher purpose than just the revelation or assertion of self. Like Eliot, Kandinsky seems to propose that in the grand scheme of art, self is unimportant. It's the spirit that counts.

Of course, there is a spectrum of colors and states involved in Kandinsky’s model of color:




It seems poetic that red would be motion within itself, while green would be spiritually extinguished and motionless. Color takes care of itself, as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, I see in color. But I just can’t deal with it as an artist. Maybe I'm just too sensitive to it.

Harmony in perfect proportion is gray; there is no motion. Photography is an attempt to fix things. It seems only natural that it would arise from discord on either side, and result in a gray lack of motion. At least in the case of black and white still photography.

Anything else is not nearly as “spiritual,” at least in my opinion.

But on the other hand, I’m not a symbolist. I’m more of a realist, and while these systems are fun, I’ve got little use for them past intellectual curiosity. I feel spiritually closer to Picasso than I do Kandinsky. Life is more fun when it's de-ciphered. However, Kandinsky's view of color is incredibly seductive:

Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

It is evident therefore that colour harmony must rest only on a corresponding vibration in the human soul; and this is one of the guiding principles of the inner need.

People are always looking for good vibrations. Color and music can provide them, but I'm not so sure that's what photography is all about. I suppose I tend to think of photographs as artifacts and curios, "documents for artists," as Atget billed them. They are objects of desire rather than saviours of the soul, I suppose, forever connected to the desiring machine.

Lisa

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sometimes when I think of the women in my past, I get blue.

Jelly (on a roll)

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Jam or Jelly?

My friend Scott was always quick to announce that he didn’t jam. He wrote songs. I liked his reasoning, and it became a part of me. I don’t like jamming much at all. It just wanders around and goes nowhere. I like to get somewhere when I write, even if it’s just a closing paradox. I’m forever trying to get things to gel.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t riff sometimes. Sometimes, weird connections result. I was thinking about Technicolor and quicksand.

Quicksand is easy. When too much fluid quickly enters a loose collection of silica particles, a flux results. The flux doesn’t bear weight easily, and things that rest upon it slide down, engulfed. Is this a bad thing? It’s actually close to HP Grice’s view of the process of making meaning. Essentially, humanity is awash in particles of meaning. We reach out to adjacent particles of meaning (implicatures) and depending on where we are in the cultural flux, we grasp at the particles of best fit dependent on our situation. But the postmodernists claim that the concrete grasp of meaning is impossible and our only choice is to swim in the flux playfully rather than drown, struggling against the shifting tide of history.

The particles of meaning could also be called beliefs. In order to be useful, they need not be fixed— just close to where we are at that point in time. But quicksand is a much more poetic term for the process involved, and naturally it made me think of the Bowie song.

Mr. Crowley, of course.

Quicksand



I'm closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley's uniform
Of imagery
I'm living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler's sacred realm
Of dream reality
I'm frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain't got the power, anymore
No I ain't got the power anymore




How can I make this gel with where I am now? It’s easier than it seems.

WB Yeats was a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his beloved Maud Gonne were wrapped up in it, and Yeats was instrumental in exiling Crowley from the order. Yeats believed in responsibilities, whereas Crowley’s edict (appropriated from Rabelais) was “Do what thou wilt.” Freedom from moral responsibility was not something that Yeats could buy into, though as I researched it today, the parallels with Crowley are astounding. The oft quoted Crowley maxim was conveyed in a book supposedly dictated by spirit voices to his wife in 1904, thirteen years before Yeats claimed his own credo was delivered by the same method. The quicksand deepens.

Yeats cut deep to the core of mythos throughout most of his career. It was also the project of Maud Gonne and the women of the Golden Dawn to create rituals for a “castle of heroes” where the old ways of moral responsibility might be recaptured. They were repulsed by Crowley’s debauchery, though they were hardly prudes themselves. The “secret knowledge” that Yeats felt was “just for schoolmates” was part of an effort to reclaim a higher moral ground in Ireland.

The Western Esoteric tradition, which both Yeats and Crowley are voices of, sought to reclaim the power of the individual in a neo-romantic way. There is a conflict between freedom and responsibilties that Bowie conveys amazingly well through his slippery dialogic song. I find it interesting that Bowie chose the image of “living in a silent film” to convey the monochrome nature of the conflict. You can envision the goose-stepping propoganda films, and Ezra Pound's (or perhaps Mussolini's) Italy where the trains run on time. All systems are by nature reductive; even when couched in elaborate mystical mumbo-jumbo they don’t capture the full spectrum of life experience. Sometimes bad guys don’t wear black, even if we wish they would, as we all drag closer to that ragged hole in the ground where we find rest.

I'm the twisted name on Garbo's eyes
Living proof of Churchill's lies
I'm destiny
I'm torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Divine symmetry
Should I kiss the viper's fang
Or herald loud the death of Man
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore

“The vipers fang” is a Golden Dawn reference as well,and it seems implicit that if we all did what we wanted it would be the end of society. But there is no stability to be found at either pole; the chorus of nihilism is the only relaxation of tension contained in the song.

Don't believe in yourself
Don't deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death's release

But in the grand old Greek tradition, the actions of the speaker are not in concord with the chorus. Though the nihilist cry that nothing is worth believing seems trapped in an endless loop, the credo is far outside real human experience. One doesn't have to be a prophet to believe in something. And believing something doesn't mean that you'll believe just anything.

I’m not a prophet or a stone age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I'm living on
I'm tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can't take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith
If I don't explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On the next Bardo
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore

The spectrum expressed here isn’t colorful, it’s reason versus the emotional need for faith. I’ve been told my worldview is monochromatic, and I suppose it is. Too much time as a photographer. Color film (and or CCD sensors) don’t ring true for me. Technicolor lies. When I owned a photo lab in the early 80s, I sent film out to the Technicolor processing plant in Fresno, California. My slides always came back blue. Though it was flattering on skyscapes, it was quite far from the reality of a blanched greyish-brown California sky.

Nothing really captures the spectrum of reality and it seems as if reduction and negation are our only tools to deal with it. Yes, it is quicksand. I may not have the power, but I’m doing my best to learn to swim through the particles I can grasp. I don’t think I’d look as good in a funny hat as Crowley does.

I can’t jam. I’m stuck with making jelly out of my brain. It beats having the blues, especially the phony Technicolor ones.

In a Dark Time is right about poems being “living things.” I'd extend that to words in general. Language is a living, evolving, changing thing. When I first heard this Bowie song, I had no clue about Nietzsche’s superman, or the Golden Dawn, or any of this stuff. I just liked the song. My feelings and interpretation have changed, obviously, over the years. They are deeper now, but I still mistrust the notion of color. I’ve sunk a long way into the quicksand.

One of the weird observations that has been made about me over the years is that I don’t think the way other people do. My process is different, and some people I’ve known have found it fascinating. They just couldn’t figure out how I got from A to B. I get pretty twisted-up sometimes.

But I don’t jam.

Pioneers in the window

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spirits of the past


The Tower

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The Tower

Yeats is a complex poet. I really don’t want to launch off into a scholarly dissertation about it, but there are some bits and pieces I could throw out for consideration. Like Loren, when I discuss poetry in my blog it’s more of a personal reaction, a personal interpretation of themes and images which may or may not be academically “correct.” If I wanted to write academically about Yeats, I’ve got an inside track for that.

However, I think many things which are gleaned from reading scholarship or conversing with scholars help the process of deepening the resonance of poetry. The frequent tower image in Yeats is a good example. But before I launch into that I thought I’d offer a short description of what the work called A Vision is.

There were two primary editions of A Vision. Though it’s out of print right now, there are lots of used copies to be had. The first edition is incredibly expensive, as some may have noticed, and the second in its first printing also commands a high price. However, there are massive numbers of the paperback reprints of the second edition out there, starting at around $7.50. Just do a search on ABE and you’ll be able to find copies. What’s the big deal about the difference in editions?

The book was first printed with an introduction that was an elaborate subterfuge. Yeats describes how a book of metaphysical lore was passed on to him by a mysterious traveler from the east. It was written by Giraldus in Cracow in 1594, and it contained the system which Yeats had transcribed as A Vision. This was Yeats’s story in 1925.

In 1938, Yeats recanted through an epistolary preface entitled “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” telling the “true” source of the information in the book. He transcribed it from “spirit communications” which his wife produced through automatic writing while in a trance. The 3,000 pages of transcription of this "miracle" were eventually published separately as well, to try to lend credibility to Yeats's story. This book supposedly has its origin in “the other side,” and the work known as A Vision is Yeats’s synopsis of the system revealed through his wife.

Regardless of the source, it’s a fascinating work. But I actually was going to talk about towers.

The image of the tower in Yeats is not the contemporary ivory tower of academia. Its source is probably best traced to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot.” Arthurian subject matter was a big thing in the Victorian era, which Yeats straddled during his poetic career. Like Hopkins and Hardy, Yeats is on the boundary line between Victorian and Modern. But to find the real source of conflict, you really have to go back to the Romantics, which Yeats himself did with great frequency, positioning himself in the company of Blake and Shelley.

Harold Bloom argued, as I have mentioned before, that the Romantic quest for self-knowledge was largely an internalization of the medieval quest-romance. Romantic values came into question dramatically in Tennyson, who dealt in alternating themes of engagement and withdrawal: to continue the search for self through art as a part of life, or to withdraw to a distant tower and create “art for arts sake.” There was tremendous anxiety of influence, to use another of Bloom’s terms, and the tower image is an encapsulation of a longstanding poetic conversation.

The Lady of Shallot sat in her tower, weaving a tapestry. When she fell in love with a knight far below, she traveled a river to find him and died. The message of this, to Yeats’s boyhood circle was that it was best to stay in the tower and make art. Withdraw into “art for art’s sake” as it were.

If you read Tennyson’s poem, in parallel with Yeats’s The Tower the image will become much clearer. Yeats repeats the same theme from a different perspective. The production of “art” occurs in the vista beneath the tower, rather than the tower itself. Yeats did seek to join art and life in a way far closer to the Romantics than the Victorians. But the overlaps in imagery are no mistake; he’s picked up Tennyson’s quandary and pushed it in an entirely new direction. It’s a theme that runs constantly through most of Yeats’s poems: the relationship between art and life.

But the tower is also a physical reality for Yeats. In 1917, he bought one. So when he speaks of “pacing on the battlements,” he actually did. Many of his pre- Raphaelite brethren painted the scene of the “Lady of Shallot.” Yeats went a step further and lived in a version of it.

I’m not a Yeats scholar, but I know one. Russell Murphy made Yeats live for me, and his presence haunts my thought a great deal of the time, which might be stating the obvious given the constant shadow he seems to cast over my blog. Yeats was a man with a troubled, multiple identity that shifts from poem to poem. Somehow, I can identify with that.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think that "Lapis Lazuli" has an affinity for Browning’s The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s, where the art looks on life with a somewhat wry grin. Yeats is like a bridge into the twentieth century, but it’s important not to forget that he is making his great stride from a start in the Victorian age.

Nihilists

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Nihilists

I was watching The Big Lebowski this afternoon. It’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. Though I would choose the Meat Puppets version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” over the original, I find a great deal of consubstantiality with the dude. Aside from having the same first name, and the same taste in drinks, and a shared hatred of the Eagles, I often find myself in opposition with the nihilists. As Walter says,

You can say what you want about National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos.
Though I hate to agree with Kenneth Burke, I do think that the primary aim of discourse is consubstantiality. This issue came up in the lecture on argumentation last night; the resolution of conflict is aimed not just in assent to propositions, but to an interpenetration of world views. We don’t just aim to make people agree with us, we aim to make people think like us.

Without an ethos, there can be no communication. There must be core values of shared implicature for communication to occur. We must understand each other's motives and desires. If there is sufficient overlap, a leveling process ensues as values are transferred and modified. This does seem to be inextricably bound to negation, where values in conflict must be excluded for concord to occur. If a common ethos is established, depending on the zone of consubstantiality, friendship and even love occur.

Nihilism prohibits love by its very nature. That’s why I don’t feel like I can succumb to it. The essential quality of love, to me at least, is placing someone else’s welfare above your own. The translation of this into a tragic formula has been complete in my experience; everyone I’ve ever loved, I’ve had to let go of. Because my presence, in one form or another, proved damaging to them.

Friendship is quite similar to love in some respects. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and all that. I suspect it’s a parity relation. Rather than holding the welfare of a friend above our own, we hold it close to the same level as our own. The balances shift, as values come in conflict, but stable long term friendships are marked by this oscillation, and return to parity after periods of disagreement and disconnection.

Ron queried: “Can our disembodied friendships be as meaningful as our embodied friendships?” I am the wrong person to ask about this. Other than my ex-wife, I have had few “embodied” friendships in the past six years. Most of the people I have called friend now live in a different state; I suppose it’s this disconnection that leads me to rant so much in this environment, hoping that someone will hear, hoping that someone will share my view.

I try to avoid online crushes, but as Shauny commented, they play some part in linking activities. When you read what people share of themselves on the web, you construct images of them. Sometimes you really start to feel a “real” sense of friendship, a friendship built on something completely outside the physical. It’s inevitable, and dangerous. I’ve made the transition from online to “meatspace” with a few people I’ve met online with mixed results. Sometimes, people do look perfect far away [obscure Bottle Rockets song reference]. I suspect that is the case with me. The last time I met someone as the result of an online exchange, I came away with the feeling that I should have left it in the abstract. I rarely have much in common with people’s ideas of me.

However, this doesn’t stop the process of reaching for consubstantiality, for interpenetration with another. It begins with shared values, shared hopes, shared dreams. These things can be expressed both through speech and silence. I’m much better at speech. I can’t seem to handle the silent parts too well.

The ultimate end of nihilism is silence. I choose belief instead. I surf lots of sites, and take the wafer thin-slices of people into my mouth, drink an occasional white Russian (rather than wine), and hope for the miracle.

lecture again

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Another lecture in the evening

This time it was “Normative Agreement and Models of Reasoning” by Chris Campolo from UC Riverside. Nothing much to talk about there, it was less about models of reasoning than the effect of implicature on premises for reasoning. HP Grice again, but under a different set of labels from a different set of theorists.

I confirmed a suspicion though. Philosophy lectures are even more ghettoized than literature lectures. There were five people, counting me and two professors. Real high demand items, these lectures.

To respond to a comment from this evening in the open, rather than buried in an entry soon to scroll off: Yes, Turbulent Velvet, I was perhaps a little off in the Artaud reference. I should have said Picabia. Though eventually I’m sure I’ll get to Deleuze and Guattari, most of that vocabulary is a bit older. It’s from the Dadaist heritage. I suppose I should offer an illustration:



At least in my mind, “Universal Prostitution” from 1916, not to mention many other examples, count as desiring machines. While VV may have gotten the idea from Deleuze and Guattari, well, it’s that damned intertextuality thing. In 1948 before he died, Artaud actually rebelled against this early Dada modeling of experience:
Where the machine is
there is always an abyss and nothingness . . .
And I shall henceforth devote myself
exclusively
to the theater
as I understand it
a theater of blood
a theater which every performance will have achieved some gain
Modernism was marked by the seductive qualities of machine culture, and it seems only natural that postmodernism would appropriate its symbols. It’s hardly new; roots run deep. I keep finding evidence of these "new perspectives" circa 400 BC. Satyr plays anyone?

I keep formulating in my head a sort of reactive cycle, where the appeal to the emotions always returns in our modes of communication. Emotion is the one universal affective that just won't die, no matter how much theorizing is done about it. I try to avoid being locked up in any language ghetto, including the postmodern one. I tend to stagger and weave across different fields, so I suppose that’s why I’ve ended up in Rhetoric.

It’s only talk. [King Crimson reference intentional]

Self again

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Self again

I went to an interesting lecture, Self Deception in Kant: If we are free, can we deceive ourselves?

A visiting professor from the University of South Carolina cleared up some stuff for me. I never thought of Kant as an idealist before, but he was. Kant “solved” the problem of moral law by dividing the will into two different dimensions: a “moral” will that must always act in accordance with an unknown, idealistic moral law and a separate “capricious” will which can act based in self interest. Morality, as Kant saw it, was a reciprocal of freedom: “Freedom and unconditional practical law reciprocally imply each other.” In other words, for Kant, without moral law there can be no concept of freedom. Kant takes a lot of flak about that, and the professor set himself up as a defender of Kant. Cool stuff; but the lecture was mislabeled. The promotional stuff said: “No philosophical knowledge required.” I don’t think so. I was struggling to follow it, and I’ve read huge amounts of Kant.

On another front, I was intrigued by the procession of concepts of self among the philosophers that the professor wrote his dissertation on. Kant saw the self as unknowable: “I have no knowledge of myself as I am but merely as I appear to myself.” He quoted a Police lyric, speculating that perhaps Sting was a Kantian: “In the desert that I call my soul, I always play a starring role...”

So lonely, indeed. Hegel evidently revised this position, proposing that the self arrives late. We start out without one, but as time goes on we have a chance to find it. Kierkegaard reverts back to Kant’s position, that the self is unknowable. The muck gets deep so quickly in all this. I just wanted to record a couple of notes. However, it seems interesting to me that both K’s actually agree on something.

I’m glad I’m not a philosophy major. I’d have a lot more headaches.

There’s been a disturbing trend at school lately though. Everyone keeps asking: “Have you picked out a Ph.D. program yet?” Christ, I’m not even halfway through my masters yet. Dr. Kleine said yesterday that he wished he could confer a Ph.D. on me right now so I could just get to work. It’s been really weird for me the last few years. Most of my professors treat me more like an equal than a student. I feel like arguing with them. Geez folks, I’m not that smart, just that weird.

Blogrolling

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Blogrolling

Linking to other blogs can take many forms, for many reasons. Sometimes, you link to another blog because you agree. Sometimes, you link to disagree. It’s only right to note the source of your affirmation/disagreement.

A while ago, In a Dark Time described a philosophy quite close to my own regarding the links on his side-bar. I think they are important too, and I change mine frequently. Over time, I have discovered that they are one of the most functional and useful parts of my site, for me at least.

I do a lot of surfing. My favorites list is so long and unruly that I seldom get back to places I stumble on and find interesting. Months can pass before I revisit places that I thought were interesting at some previous moment. A person can only read so many sites in a day, so maintaining links on my site has a practical side. The places I want to visit frequently are right there when I visit my own site to make sure that a post is displayed properly. Once I’ve verified that things are okay, I can launch off to somewhere else. I use my links; I’m not so sure anyone else does.

So, the hierarchy that evolves is one of frequency of visitation, not an appraisal of quality. I try to update them at least once a month. Sites rise and fall, and rise again, both due to my reading habits and the frequency of updates on the particular site. As an added benefit, as the list has grown longer, my browser tells me if it’s been two weeks since I’ve visited a site. The link becomes bold to me, as a reminder, because I have my history set to purge once every two weeks.

Mike Sanders often calls for “longer blogrolls” and greater affirmation in the blogging community. I agree, but it’s a qualified sort of agreement. Putting a bunch of links on your site that you don’t visit yourself is the worst kind of false advertising. I put links up that I read on a regular basis. I don’t feel obligated to link to everyone who links to me, and am not disappointed when I link to someone and they don’t link back. If they don’t read me, what’s the point? When I find a new blog I like, I often surf their links to see if there is more good stuff that I haven’t found yet. I strive to keep things diverse in my linkage, because I don’t want just one point of view.

I’ve often thought of the web as an overgrown high school, with all its attendant cliques. I try not to find myself forced into one. I successfully avoided that all through school; I avoid the popular crowd almost as a matter of habit. There is no need to link to what they have to say, because many other people will be talking about it if they say something good. I want to know what’s going on in the fringes, on those sites that get few hits per day (like mine). Linking is a tool to find them, and to have them find me (if they look at their referrer logs, that is). If they are interested in what I have to say, I’ve made a new friend. Otherwise, not.

Throughout life, friendships change and shift. Linking is a way to keep friendships solid, and a reminder that people actually do read and care about other people. I think it’s perhaps one of the most significant parts of any site.

Except for content of course. If there’s no new content on a regular basis, why link?

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

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“Whose Voice is it Anyway?”

Anne Ruggles Gere raises some thorny issues about voice in this article, which occupies chapter 2 of the Writing and Healing anthology edited by my professor, Charles Anderson and Marian MacCurdy. Issues of voice are quite complicated because through voice we express ourselves in ways that are shaped by our perception of self.

Gere opens the article by telling a story about her experience trying out to be a cheerleader in the seventh grade. She worked hard to make the squad but failed, because as she was told, “Your voice just isn’t loud enough.” I’ve never been told that, quite the opposite actually: I’ve often been told my voice is too loud. In retrospect, perhaps that’s why I felt more comfortable retreating into the silence of photographs. Every time I spoke, I felt as if I was dominating things. People often look at me like some kind of “leader” merely because I have little trouble speaking up. But I try not to. I choke back more words than I speak. My words just flow in torrents any time I open up the gate. I suppose I was trying to fix that by becoming a photographer. When I make photographs, I seldom speak. In fact, I find it nearly impossible to speak when my visual centers are working at the peak of their capacity. Through photography, I was looking for a quieter and more eloquent voice, a voice that wouldn’t make other people become silent: a voice that would encourage people to talk to me, rather than be silent.

Writing has shifted and modified my view of self, because I became more conscious of the games that people play when they express themselves. Everyone does it; they bend their voice to fit the situation, to try to find some common ground where connections might be formed. I really like Gere’s take on the opposite side of the coin:

Being told that my voice was too soft had as much influence on my understanding of the concept as anything I’ve read in professional journals. The term we use most frequently to describe voice— authentic— takes on meaning when we connect that word “authentic” with our own lives. Feeling inadequate or not powerful enough shapes one’s understanding of voice just as feeling important and in control does. Connecting to one’s life does not, however, mean continuing to think of voice in individual terms. Many of our current discussions about voice presume a stable, coherent self while our conversations about other aspects of composition take for granted a more complicated and less unified concept of self we call “the writer.” In wanting to be a cheerleader, I sought to join other voices, and I believe that the finely textured personal and autobiographical writing now emerging in the academy leads us to public and social contexts rather than private and individualistic ones.

This was just so incredibly well put and relevant to the questions of voice in blogging that I had to put it out there. Voice is a multivalent quality. It isn’t just “being true to yourself” it is also seeking to connect with communities of voices. The most important pole to steer by, as far as I’m concerned, is a sense that the voice we speak is connected in some way with the conglomerate self that we hold close. It isn’t a fixed thing, it shifts dependent on the situation in which we express it.

The questions that I find interesting are not “what is voice?” or “what is authentic?” but instead, how has the open sharing of ideas and personalities in the first truly global environment, the Internet, leveled or shifted the playing field when it comes to forging those connections which language (and/or self) drives us to seek.

Voice and authenticity are much larger things than the presence of personalities on the Internet. Blogging presents these qualities in a new context, with new depth and complexity. The interrogation going on, at least the parts that I’ve read, don’t do more than scratch the surface of the differences involved, focusing only on the similarities to the larger questions. What’s so different about blogging? I’m still not sure. I haven’t really isolated any good specific rather than general questions to ask. Hyperlinking pops up from time to time as one of those differences, and yet hyperlinking is just the latest twist on “intertextuality” which is also one of those deep and abiding questions about the nature of discourse. The Internet didn’t invent intertexuality; it has only accelerated it. However, it is possible that it has strengthened the ability to claim validity, by linking to supporting or dissenting positions, accelerating judgment.

So, is this blogging stuff just another manifestation for our need for speed? Or, is it deeper— reaching out to find some language, some voice that can be used to touch people beyond ourselves? I agree with Gere. Voice and authenticity are much bigger than just the act of inflicting our selves on each other.

That, by the way, was William Blake’s definition of friendship:

We impose upon each other.

Many blog writers I’ve known over the last few years cite friendship as a primary motivation. To make friends, because a person can never have enough friends.

Broken

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Broken

The normal flow of things was broken yesterday. I had just finished teaching my classes, which both went well, and settled down to read some critical articles for my night class. I decided to take a break and watch The Mothman Prophecies, but by the end of the first hour I descended into a migraine.

It washed over me in waves of intense pain, and I settled into bed and closed my eyes. I used to have migraines fairly frequently, but since returning to school they have mostly subsided. Though I was quite prepared for class, I missed it. I never do that. I managed to escape into sleep, and woke up around midnight for a while. I watched the rest of the movie and then slept, until 9am when Dr. Crisp called to say that he was feeling ill so my afternoon class today was cancelled.

The articles I was reading yesterday had to do with speech and silence, and authority and voice. Strange how that happens; lots of material I wanted to blog more about these topics; I may get back to them this afternoon if I can recapture the train of thought. But it was broken by a different sort of pain than what usually disrupts me.

I feel better today, but I’m oddly dislocated. I woke up thinking of Chaucer, in his little cubicle above the bridge. I was thinking about how our models today are not brilliant men with skills above the norm. The actors and actresses, sports figures and celebrities which garner the greatest monetary rewards in society are largely ordinary people who have been singled out because of their talents to inspire in ways that have little to do with intelligence. The most essential people in our society are paid the least, because we run away from the mundane into the fantasy worlds of entertainment and sport; we don’t want to be reminded that the core values that support society are tedious boring work. Escape is the most highly praised commodity by far.

But the stories that grant most people escape are written by committee. It’s not the efforts of great men, but instead a sort of social consensus voted upon by dollars. Leading the parade are hollow puppets, with strings pulled not by master manipulators, but instead by the winds of popular opinion.

Okay, so that isn’t that profound. It’s just what I was thinking about this morning. When I clear my head, I may be able to return to that broken train of thought which reaches deeper that a cursory survey of surface values.

Yesterday, I was thinking of silence. Appropriately enough, it was expressed in silence. I was thinking about the increasing numbers of e-mails I get from people who define themselves by withholding, by saying little other than they read what I say and are puzzled or amused by it. I withhold little, because I have nothing to lose. My life is quite ordinary, and I’ve spent much more time focusing on what I say rather than what I don’t say. Perhaps it’s time for a change. Or perhaps not.

Strobe

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I don't think these guys cared that I was reading Nietzsche before I went out to photograph their band

Times Change

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Times change.

I was just thinking about how much has changed in the last six years or so. Once upon a time, when I got that constricted feeling in my chest that said “if you stick around the house one more second you’ll explode” I’d go down to a bar. Not because I had a drinking problem really, but because that’s where all my friends were.

Most of my friends were musicians. There was something about the serious ones, the ones who burned inside. It reminded me that feeling was a good thing, and that it’s okay to be down as long as you try to turn it into something. But I was also friends with a lot of bartenders and waitresses, because like myself, they were spectators of an ever-changing freak-show. I only know a few people here in Arkansas, and chances are if I walked into a bar I might find someone I could talk to, but I don’t go out much anymore.

I went to Walmart. I needed light bulbs. They’ve been burning out all over the house. It’s the price of reading in every room. As I watched the employees scraping the floor around the endcap displays, and wheeling pallet-jacks around the aisles, I thought about the picture I must present to the casual reader of my blog. Let’s get one thing out in the open. For most of my life, I’ve been a shlep. Shlep this here, move it there, and answering an endless stream of questions: “Oh, that’s over on aisle five.”

When I got to Arkansas, I became a different kind of shlep. I shlepped business cards and other printing jobs over a hundred mile route each day. Then I graduated to button pusher. I sat at a processing machine, churning out 3,000 to 5,000 photographic prints a day. I think that’s part of what forced a change. It was so boring that I would put a book on the table beside me and read.

The job is history, but the reading isn’t. Now, when I want to run into someone I know I go to a bookstore. I ran into three people I knew tonight at Barnes and Noble. Now the topic of conversation is likely to be Hopkins and Yeats, rather than Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Most of the people I know here have no clue how weird that makes me feel.

Light reading is no longer Trouser Press and Spin, it’s I.A. Richard’s Philosophy of Rhetoric and Genette’s Narrative Discourse. What, me an academic? How the fuck did that happen. I must have got slammed too hard in the pit.

Okay, so I’ve always been a closet literature reader. It just took the exciting and thrilling sights of Arkansas to bring me out of the closet. Okay, I’m out now.

After-hours party philosophy and the encrustations of the ages carry similar weight though. There are some lessons that only life can teach you. However, once you’ve learned them, it’s good to get back to the books. My main desire was that if I had to say “may I help you” all the time, it would be to direct them towards something good to read, rather than drain-cleaner for their backed-up sink.

Requiem for a Dream

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Nausea

The afternoon movie was something completely different. Requiem for a Dream was a film I remember Luke mentioning when it first came out. In my Usenet trawling, I ran across it weeks ago. I downloaded it, but hadn’t watched it until today. It is truly a disturbing film, and as the reviewer on the site I linked above noted, there are few films in the same class as this one. You read that all the time, but this time, I agree.

I had no clue until after I watched it that it was based on a Hubert Selby Jr. novel. I had been thinking about him a lot, going into the “Writing and Healing” class. Every week Dr. Anderson cautions us that dealing with this material is guaranteed to bum you right out. For the most part, it’s no problem for me because I’ve been living with melancholia for a long time, and I can deal. The only writing that has ever pushed me near the edge of coping is Selby. I’m not sure I can read this book now, because the film just left me shaking and nauseous. It might be different if I didn't know people like this, but there is no turning back once you enter the film.

My mom called right afterward with the usual disturbing news from “home.” It actually made me feel better. Strange how that works.

Selby just rips at your guts. I remember when I read Last Exit to Brooklyn there were sections where I just had to put the book down and walk away for a while. You can’t do that with a movie. It’s been three hours since I watched it, and it just won’t let go. I’m going to have to get outside. If I read the book, it won’t be for a long while. Some things are just too much.

The official site is a bit much too. Just dragging and clicking around turns into an odd adventure.

I’ll never look at my refrigerator quite the same again.

Authorized

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Author—ized

To judge something to be authentic is to authorize it. It’s a question of authority, after all, this determination of truth versus fabrication. Stories present a special case, because though they are fabricated, they convey truths beneath the surface. In many cases, they are a distillation of coded, authenticated, behaviors. I was watching First Knight this morning. Though it’s fairly universally reviled, I find this oversimplification of Arthurian legend quite compelling. It cuts to the chase. For example, Guinevere asserts to Lancelot:

Justice? How can there be justice if you find no power higher than yourself?
The movie suffers from what Victor Vitanza aptly names genus-cide. It’s a compression of characteristics of the Arthurian legend that throws out some fundamental differences in order to gain rhetorical power. The problematic word here is your-self. Genus-cidal oversimplification promotes the notion of self as an inflexible, unchanging commodity. We author-ize texts by searching for the author as authority. But the author is a complex thing, particularly in the case of an omniscient, omnipresent one— a God to which all things are subject. I like Protagoras’ take on the question.

Concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist for there is much to prevent one’s knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man’s life.

For saying this, Protagoras was expelled from Athens and all his books were burned. Only fragments survive, largely citations of them in other texts, but they are incredible. Where Arthur's celebration of the value of community and cooperation (and militaristic solutions to problems) has survived and passed from generation to generation, Protagoras is lost to obscurity and he is branded genus-cidaly a Sophist. (Hi)story has judged Arthur more valuble than any agnostic. We like clean simple judgments, not complex ones. Protagora’s criteria for judgment seems both simple and complex. Sextus is one of the few authors that seemed to see the depth involved:

Protagoras, too, will have it that of all things the measure is man, of things that they are, and of things that they are not, meaning by “measure” the standard of judgment, and using the word chremata rather than pragmata for “things”.

I don’t know Greek enough to say if this is accurate, but chremata seems quite close to chroma, or color, which would relate it to a spectrum rather than a simpler notion of "things" as fixed, ideal quantities. As Sextus continues, he seems to suggest that my instinct is correct:

And for this reason he [Protagoras] posits only what appears to the individual, thus introducing relativity . . . Now what he says is that matter is in a state of flux, and that as it changes there is a continuous replacement of the effluvia which it gives off; accordance with one’s age and aspects of bodily condition. He says too that reasons [logoi] of all the appearances are present in the matter, so the matter is capable as far as lies in its own power, of being everything that appears to everybody.

This is dangerously close to the modern cliché “it’s all good” which is a stone’s throw from “it’s all true,” and even closer to “it’s all authentic”. For if man is the measure, or judge, of all things, and all men are equal, then all perceptions are equally valid. However, it’s the pesky problem of self, or the defintion of "what is man" that creates problems.

Men, however, apprehend different things at different times according to their various dispositions. For the man whose condition is natural grasps, out of what is contained in matter, what appears to those in a natural condition, whereas man whose condition is not natural grasps what can appear to those in that condition. The same account, moreover, must be given of differences in age, the question of whether one is asleep or awake, and every type of variation in one's condition.

Protagoras makes the whole process of judgment problematic. The world in flux is perceived by humans in flux, and the only possible anchor suggested is the idea of “a natural condition” which of course, no one can agree upon. At least not without resort to authority: authority that is in and of itself a problem.

Zucker’s Lancelot vacillates in his enlightened self interest only slightly as he internalizes the values of Camelot: the highest form of natural society. A society built on fabricated legends, told by stories in flux, which change to suit the shifting qualities of nature. His self is transformed while he defines himself as author of his own story. Lancelot Arthur-izes his behavior.

To thine own self be true? Fine, I can accept that. But which self?

Kern River

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At the bank of the Kern River in California. Just a red filter and a polarizer, and the water dissapears. In the photograph, anyway.

A River Runs Through It

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I am haunted by the waters.

This sentence closes “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean. I read the novella this afternoon, for a class I have on Monday. The waters that Maclean speaks of are life itself; the metaphor that blossoms at its close is that underneath these waters are words. But it isn’t the words that haunt a writer, it is the life that washes over them.

The novella is so much better than the movie. That sounds like a cliché, because it is. Movies just don’t have the transformative powers of books. Books develop a vocabulary through use, nuancing the meanings slightly, deflecting them, transforming metaphors into containers of meaning that last far beyond the two or three hour limit of a movie. And they gesture back to other texts, building on the avalanche of meanings that centuries of culture have proposed and refined. I particularly liked Maclean’s gesture at Wordsworth:

Poets talk of “spots of time,” but it is really fisherman who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.
While I’d argue with Maclean on this point, it is the weight of Wordsworth’s influence outside this text that provides the compressed signification of this scene of a fish lost in a tree. It is a fitting allusion for a retired English teacher who only began to write fiction at age 70. It is natural that a man with this experience to refute the poet who felt that childhood was the peak of life, by arguing with one of his youthful discoveries. Leave it to a fisherman though, to make the loss of a fish have the bittersweet power of an orgasm. It makes me wonder though why the memory of an orgasm is so fleeting. Perhaps this amnesia is nature’s way of telling us that we need to have another; there can never be enough orgasms in this life.

One of the funniest scenes in it was the discovery of Neal and Old Rawhide on the beach, asleep and face-down in the sand after their drunken reverie. Old Rawhide has two letters on each butt cheek, and they first think they are initials. But then they dismiss the idea:

“Well,” he said, they don’t fit because she has LO tattooed on one cheek of her ass and VE on the other.”

I told him, “LOVE spells love, with a hash-mark in between.”

“I’ll be damned,” he said, and backed away and started to study the situation all over again.

She jumped straight up like a barber pole. She was red, white, and blue. She was white where she’d been lying on her belly in the sand, and her back completed the patriotic color scheme, red into her hair except for the blue-black tattoo. Somebody should have spun around her and played “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Now that’s my idea of patriotism.

I can’t wait to finish the rest of the stories in the collection.

Howard

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Howard

For some reason this morning, I thought of Howard. I don’t recall his last name, but I remember a lot of late night conversations. I hadn’t thought of him in a long time, and this time I connected it with some lines from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

While in my mid-twenties, I was assistant manager of a hardware store. Howard was the night man in the lumber yard. He looked a bit like Karl Malden with glowing nose offsetting a thin gaunt body wearing a tattered coat; it was the same sort of coat that you see on winos in the street wear, moth-eaten and threadbare. Howard was in his 60s, and irascible. I was forever running interference between him and the kids who worked the nightshift.

Howard didn’t take any shit. His story was a long and complex one, and I learned so much from this man. I got bored easily, so I was forever tearing up the store and building new displays to keep busy. Howard had much experience with this; he used to be a carpenter, and he built all the store fixtures for a major local department store. He passed the tricks on to me, and we talked a bit about his life.

He made enough money as a carpenter to buy a shop in Carmel, California, where he and his wife collected and sold sea shells. Yes, Howard really did sell sea shells by the sea shore. It was quite a lucrative business, but he developed a disease. He was an alcoholic. Howard lost it all, and he told me he was on the streets for over twenty years. He slept in gutters, and fought for survival each day. You could see it in his eyes. Howard was always aware of everything around him; you couldn’t sneak-up on Howard.

When I knew him, he was in the program. He owned nothing, save a rusted bicycle that he rode to work each day from a flophouse downtown. Work for him was a joyous and happy thing, and we crafted a lot of displays together. He was always on time, and always ready to work. He didn’t share his stories easily; it took a lot of coaxing to learn this much. The kids at the hardware store had no idea that such a wealth of life experiences was right there at their fingertips, but I listened and learned from this tattered coat upon a stick.

A few years later, I heard that Howard was hit by a car while riding his bike and became an invalid. I didn’t know how to contact him. I’m sure he’s gone by now. But even as a grumpy old man his soul did sing. And he lives in bits and pieces, in my memory.

Tornado

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Being inside a tornado can force a collapse, it's the ultimate in deterritorialization.

Gyres

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Gyres again

The ever-sharp Mike Sanders blogged a bunch of stuff about authenticity, self, and mask. The authenticity question I have avoided, because authenticity is a concept that lies outside the world we live in, at least according to postmodern theory. According to Baudrillard the path of history has been a map of the precession of simulacra; the real no longer exists. The real has been replaced by the hyperreal. Because that is the case, there is no authenticity anymore.

I can't say that I agree completely. However, the question of authenticity is inextricably linked to the questions of mask and self. Oddly enough, that is precisely the terminology that WB Yeats used to describe the gyres which rule existence. However, in Yeats's conception what most people refer to as "mask" is really an interface between the creative mind and the emotions, which were what Yeats defined as the mask. If it sounds confusing, it is. Dr. Murphy tried to convince me that where Blake and Shelley were algebra, Yeats is calculus. I don't agree. Blake is ultimately more confusing and difficult to grasp. I've been working on Blake for years, and I couldn't condense it to a "short version" the way I can Yeats. I've been talking about Yeats's system for a few days, and it is difficult to envision. So I made a cheesy graphic:

The "self" has four parts, divided between the objective and the subjective. The objective faculty is the "will"; the subjective is the "creative mind". The negations of these things are the "mask" and the "body of fate," emotions and chance. The objective and the subjective rotate in opposite directions like tornados interpenetrating each other. The will is opposed to the mask, in Yeats's system the emotions and will are forever separate. The creative mind is in opposition to fate: things that cannot be shaped by the mind. Yeats mapped this rotation out into 28 phases, like the phases of the moon, but I'm not going to go there tonight. The key point is the oppositions involved. In this view the self is multivalent, containing both subjective and objective parts churning desperately against each other.

Ultimately, the entire paradigm is a HUGE confusing mess, and difficult to talk about. But I do find visualizing the storm of life in this way to be somewhat helpful. It may not be accurate in a scientific sense, but in an emotional one, it has resonance. The emotions constantly move in and out of phase with the creative mind.

I just thought I'd throw this out there, because I know my discussions of gyres may not be easy to follow. I also like Baudrillard's precession of simulacra; in many ways this encompasses maps like Yeats's. We keep trying to make sense of self and mask, and we create simulations to try to envision it. But the world dances and spins, just outside the reach of any neat conceptual model.

Abject

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Abject

I had to look it up to make sure it meant what I thought it did. It was used in a peculiar context, in a peculiar book.

“I” am not a subject; not an object. “I” am an abject.

I started reading Victor Vitanza’s Negation, Subjectivity, and The History of Rhetoric. Or, it might be more apt to say I was engulfed by it. It’s hard to describe at this point. Like most postmodern tomes, it’s filled with critical doublespeak, and yet, it’s just plain fun. That is, if you can get the jokes. Some of them are obtuse to the extreme.

Vitanza wants to create a new history of rhetoric: “Histories of unfettered desire. Desire in language and everything else.” He constantly gestures at many texts I’ve never read, and many that I have. His agenda is one of pure desire, but desire of a special type. Desire without organs:

(Organs = ways of territorializing, or of deterritorializing and reterritorializing —denegating and renegating— the flow of desire. Without Organs = perpetual deterritorializing)
The book is full of parentheses, or as Vitanza calls them, invaginations. He explains:

Sometimes, I find that I must un/make particular comments of mine. (I must put my “I”/eye— so to s/peak— in parenthesis.) When reading en parentheses, just laugh.

Needless to say, this one is going to take a while to read. But I just had to comment on it while I was still laughing. Talking to one of my professors that knows him, he is a short little white guy with gray hair. Funny, but I sort of pictured some kind of neo-boho in a beret. His prose is just terrific, if not maddening. Like many of the people in the field with even the slightest tinge of humanism left, he’s looking for a rhetoric of yes instead of a rhetoric of not. NOT a book for beginners.

I’ve read at least half of his references, so it makes a reasonable amount of sense to me, but it would be a real mountain to climb for someone not well versed in critical theory. But it’s just so damn fun. Once you get the jokes.

Vitanza presents a definition of self that I like a lot, buried deep in the mire:

. . .this “I” would become a series of flows, energies, movements, capacities, a series of parts and segments capable of becoming linked together in ways other than those which congeal them by standard academic operating procedures. (. . .un/just as these “Becauses” link but do not necessarily legitimately link, or couple. Yes, I am for illegitimate couplings! As I will tout later, by way of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Ovid and Hélène Cixous, it is necessary to link [be social] but not how to link. Here, throughout, therefore, I link one traditional or revisionary machine to a desiring machine.

He seems to summon the ghost of Artaud. Humans as desiring machines? I must say I like that. I like that a lot. It beats the heck out of “symbol-making creatures.” All this is just from the introduction. I must say, this one is going to take a while to wrap my mind around. But I like it so far.

I prefer being an “abject” to being either a subject or an object.

Mel & Falling James

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Mel, and the infamous Falling James

A little frivolity

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And now for something completely different.

Valentine's blues? You really need to visit Romanza! Sheer genius, I'm telling you.

Smoking crack and having sex in airplane bathrooms can cause problems.

This story give all new meaning to a brush with the law.

Fans of rules for blogging and other such manifestos should take heed. Arrogant bastards will be punished. It's my blog and I'll swear if I want to. . .

It's too bad that my University doesn't sponsor debates on nudity.

And one last thing: Famous Photographer Comics. They are in Italian, but the pictures do give you the gist of the thing. Don't miss Tina Modatti, Paul Strand and Jan Saudek. Of course, knowing a bit about these photographers helps the cartoons make sense too. Via Consumptive.

Okay, that should help with the low frivolity quotient that my blog has been suffering from.

Last of the Romantics

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Last of the Romantics

I’ve danced around a theme for a while, so I might as well dive right in. Yeats made many mistakes, particularly in the realm of belief. But the hungry heart behind it is a spirit that I can understand. I thought I might take a second to celebrate and interpolate, in my opinion, his finest poem. Though A Vision is the culmination of his life’s work, it is his reflection, written near the end of his life that just rings in my heart. I have never been able to free myself of this poem.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion

I

I SOUGHT a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

I think of my efforts on this web site in many ways as my own peculiar circus, a mélange of ideas and images gathered over the course of too many years. Too many late nights. Too much loneliness. The last time I met someone new (outside of school) she looked at me, after having read my writing on this site, and declared: “You’re not how I pictured you. You have such sad eyes.”

But, “being but a broken man, / I must be satisfied with my heart.” That is just the way things are. I’ve carried it with me beating, counting off the moments of time spent searching. I moved so quickly for so many years. And then, abruptly, time began to slow and then stop.

II

What can I but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

There is at heart always a romantic quest not to be alone. But opposing forces, deception and hatred and lies do drive us to make sense of it all. The themes are old, but the understanding of them is wanting. That’s what Yeats thought his gift must be. At first it was the realm of pure symbol, the ultimate in polyvalent signifers. Then it was the system, dictated by spirits to his wife which became A Vision. But here we find the admission that he ended up the fool, the bit of straw in the wind, who lost the knowledge of just what was behind the dream.

III

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

There is a Blake illustration that I know Yeats had in mind when constructing this final, arresting image. It’s of a man holding a ladder up to the moon. The caption reads: “I Want! I Want!”

The creative mind places the rungs on the ladder as it tries to reach out for more. It starts from nothing, and builds a ladder to the stars. But in the end, our skills fade away and we end up back in the dust. Bits of cloth and bone, that’s all we are in the end. And only the desire of the heart can drive us, with all its attendant despair.

I don’t think this poem is sad, myself, just true. Eventually, we all just crumble and fade. But it is such a beautiful dream, while it lasts. I have not given up on the dream of life yet.

Still a romantic

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Still a romantic

I really like being able to meet and interact with some of the adjunct teachers. There are some odd side-effects though. I find out how little I agree with most of them. Reading and reviewing some pieces today, as we were discussing grading strategies, there was one piece that really made me feel weird.

It was a piece about photography, written by a 17-year-old, that everyone else just loved and gave an A. Mechanically, the piece was quite good, with only a handful of errors. There was strong evidence of metacognitive reflection in a few sections, as the writer explored the infinite possibilities of photography. But it was flat. It jumped from one scene to another with no real development or arc with little conception of a strategy for conveying the ideas. It was just a long ramble that failed to reveal much in the way of feelings, and it stopped just short of some very powerful ideas. I gave it a B-, or maybe even a C+. The other teachers were shocked.

My justification was that it was in dire need of revision to be a coherent and interesting read. The spark of creativity that was shining in the thing was just buried by its lack of motive or direction. One of the other teachers found the “story” aspect of the essay most significant. Because it was a creative tale, she thought that the effort alone was worth the reward of a high mark. She noted several questions on the draft, aimed at drawing out “the writer’s voice” and increasing the depth of description. She explained that because she was from a creative-writing track, she felt that things like plot and development were not as important as helping writers “find themselves.”

I choked back the response I wanted to give. Most of the current praxis in pedagogy rejects her stance as “romantic.” It is out of vogue to think that a teacher’s job is to promote “individual expression.” I agree with this, in a limited and qualified way. However, it is because I am at heart a romantic. Romanticism did not glorify and promote the individual. It promoted vision. But it also believed that vision cannot be taught. It can however be recognized, and facilitated. The vision, in the case of this essay, was not in the telling of events from the writer’s personal life. It was in his reflection on photography as a larger thing, capable of infinite choice, and ultimately and agent of persuasion. These things occupied only two paragraphs of the long and rambling essay. The writer’s “voice” actually obscured the valuable content and lesson to be learned from the essay. If you learn to see into the soul of writing, voice takes care of itself.

This doesn’t mean that I’m insensitive to the issues of voice, just that I think that it is far more important to see the big picture at work. If you can’t form a coherent whole when you write, you stand no chance of finding a voice to speak with. I think it is the job of all people to find themselves, and define themselves in relationship with the world. It’s not a teacher’s job. It is a teacher’s job to transmit the skills which can help this process along. The student has to do their own work, when it comes to defining themselves, and I think it is pretentious and meddlesome to intrude on it. I critique the writing, not the writer.

As a person, yes, the writer was an A student. As a piece of writing, it barely rated a B to me. I am not seduced by creativity alone. Creativity does fools no good at all, if they cannot express themselves clearly.

Being a romantic, for me, means wanting to climb to the top of the tornado. To take the flight of imagination to its fullest height. It takes wings to get there though. Coddling people seems to me to be a great disservice. The writer finds his own voice. A teacher should be an intelligent reader and coach, not a psychotherapist. The writing teacher, to me at least, should teach writing— not personality.

Social constructivists claim that teachers do teach world view and help construct personalities. I think this is bull to a large extent. A small grain of truth, with a bunch of crap wrapped around it. Yes, I’m sure that teachers have influence on these things, but I don’t feel it should be center-stage in pedagogy. Skills come first, as far as I’m concerned. If you have the tools, you can construct your own world. Can creativity be taught? I don’t think so. That’s up to the individual’s effort. But skills can be increased by recognizing creativity when it happens, and moving to strengthen it rather than just reward it.

Angry

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Angry.

I don’t know why my feelings have gone so out of control in the last few years. It’s as if they are something separate and disconnected from my “self” with no rhyme or reason to their behavior. Today, lurking just beneath the surface there is this lumbering sort of anger, the kind of anger that builds into violence. I know it won’t get that far, my rationality does rule it, but there is utterly no reason for this feeling.

But it’s there. Just out of reach. Coloring the way I look at things, influencing choices I make, and generally being a pain in the ass. There is absolutely no reason for it. Things are going well. Little is denied to me. I am standing in a center where I can see things spinning around. Yeats’s gyres are spinning through their phases.

Perhaps it’s Phase 28:

Will — The Fool.

Mask (from Phase 14). True — Oblivion. False — Malignity.

Creative Mind (from Phase 2). True — Physical Activity. False — Cunning.

Body of Fate (from Phase 16). — The Fool is his own Body of Fate

The natural man, the Fool desiring his Mask, grows malignant, not as the Hunchback, who is jealous of those who can still feel, but through terror and out of jealousy of all that can act with intelligence and effect. It is his true business to become his own opposite, to pass from a semblance of Phase 14 to the reality of Phase 28, and this he does under the influence of his own mind and body — he is his own Body of Fate for having no active intelligence he owns nothing of the exterior world but his own mind and body. He is but a straw blown by the wind, with no mind but the wind and no act but a nameless drifting and turning, and is sometimes called “The Child of God”. At his worst his hands and feet and eyes, his will and his feelings, obey obscure subconscious fantasies, while at his best he would know all wisdom if he could know anything. The physical world suggests to his mind pictures and events that have no relation to his needs or even his desires; his thoughts are an aimless reverie; his acts are aimless like his thoughts; and it is in this aimlessness that he finds his joy.

WB Yeats, A Vision

That about sums it up, really. It’s strange to me that I have the talent of turning the pages of a book to just the part I need. It seems almost more instinctual than rational. It’s also strange to me that I seem to read at about twice the speed of most of my fellow teachers. Each time we’ve gone through workshops, I’m always left staring off into space while the rest of the people continue reading. Inside my head, I do feel like a straw drifting in the wind.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a fool.

Cadillac Tramps

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Cadillac Tramps!

Fuck Valentine's Day

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Every Valentine's Day I'd like to send a giant "Fuck You!" to the world.

Even though Dutchbint's Valentines are at least honest appraisals of the situation, since I've been in Arkansas Valentine's Day has been especially difficult. No wonder I'm reading the "hard stuff" lately. It's evasion. I really hate this damn day. I may have to go to a meeting tomorrow with a bunch of happily married folks and choke it back. Bastards! What right have you got to be in love and happy! Why can't you be miserable like most of us! But if suppose that if a blogger has a right to command that people not judge him, I have the right to want to stop the force of love. Anyone who has read me long enough knows that I'm only joking.

People judge all the time. It's in our nature. Hot or not? People fall in love all the time too. But not with me.

Sorry for the outburst of sour grapes, it's just that the last girlfriend I had left me on Valentine's Day.

Tornados

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Stepping into the tornado

This afternoon, I was reading Yeats. There are weird things that surround my peculiar fascination with him. It started with a mistake.

I was living in California, married and at an impasse. I felt like I was going in circles, repeating the same dull round. Then I struck up a correspondence with a woman from Arkansas which turned into love like a quick summer storm. But I couldn’t throw out my principles, and lie and deceive. My wife found out by accident, and I just couldn’t lie about it. She didn’t want to end things, especially over someone I hadn’t even physically met. A bargain was struck. My wife flew to Florida to visit her grandmother on the day that my new love arrived. We spent a week together, to see if things were real.

It couldn’t have been more real. It was as if a tornado had touched down in my life shredding everything in its path. I dropped her off at LAX to go home, and I had a few hours wait before my wife arrived home, before I had to tell her that our ten-year marriage was over. I was looking for a book to read, and I’d been talking with a guy I worked with who was doing his master's thesis on Keats. At the time, I was not a literature student. I was a photographer. So my brain saw The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats and read it as Keats. Oops.

I bought the book, and really enjoyed it. There was just something so strangely appropriate, because many of the poems were concerned with growing old. I suppose I was at a crossroads, wondering where I wanted to be as I grew old. The poems were also a strange vortex to me, drawing me in and making me want to know more.

I left them unconsidered for several years after the new relationship fell apart. It was too painful a memory. But then, four years back at school studying literature, I had the opportunity to take a seminar on Yeats taught by Russell Murphy, who edits the Yeats-Eliot Review. Suddenly the twisting gyres of Yeats’s universe filled my head. I had a much better sense of what they meant. Dr. Murphy offered to publish my final paper, but I still haven’t revised it. It was high praise, but there is just so much pain wrapped up in the poems and my feelings about them. The paper was about Blake and Shelley, and what they meant to Yeats. One day, I’ll have to go back to it.

But that is all just prelude, to what I was thinking today.

Harold Bloom sees Yeats’s A Vision as a failure, a failure based on an attempt for closure. Without going into two much detail, Yeats was also trying to revise dialectic. He saw the forces of the universe as opposing gyres, the objective and subjective twisting and turning in opposite directions while interpenetrating each other. He borrowed from Blake’s notions of contraries and negations, and evolved it into a closed system based in the phases of the moon, but the driving force is like two tornados intersecting. Bloom claims that Blake’s notion of vortices is a more workable system, also built in a rebellion against the encroachment of dialectic.

For Blake, there are two limits: ultimate expansion and ultimate contraction. The ultimate in contraction is opaque, dark, lightless, Satan. The ultimate in expansion is God. Man sees the world from a perspective in the midst of a vortex stretching from the contraction of Satan to the expansion of heaven. The goal of life should be to reach higher in the vortex, up to a world of infinite expansion, reaching out to God. That was the problem, as he saw it, with reason and abstract reductionism. The spinning of the vortex, for Blake, never stops. Even in heaven.

Shortly after arriving in Arkansas, my brother told me about his tornado experience. He was sitting in his little guard shack in the middle of the night when a tornado picked him up and sat him back down, unharmed, about a hundred yards away. He claimed that he just hasn’t seen the world the same since.

I could say the same thing, except the tornado that caught me took me around 1500 miles. There has been no completeness, no phases, no movement toward perfection. Just endless mental fight to try to make the circles a little wider. To get away from ground zero of the thing that tore up my life.

But Yeats still provides a compelling, and comforting case:

'But such as you an I do not seem old
Like men who live by habit. Every day
I ride with the falcon to the river's edge
Or carry the ringed mail upon my back,
Or court a woman; neither enemy,
Game-bird, nor woman does the same thing twice;
And so a hunter carries in the eye
A mimicry of youth. Can poet's thought
That springs from body and in body falls
Like this pure jet, now lost amid blue sky,
Now bathing lily leaf and fish's scale,
Be mimicry?

WB Yeats, "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid" 55-66

At the very least, I think Yeats refutes Plato quite nicely.

Avoiding the vortex

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Avoiding the vortex.

I paced and read and thought for hours, trying to figure out how to describe the notions whirling around in my head. A few things are coming together, tenuously. They could fly apart at any second. So, instead of relating those, I'll just back up and finish what I started yesterday.

In a few hours reading, under stress, I finally managed to grasp a few more particles of Jurgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action. I felt sorry for the class, because the excerpt we were asked to read (I have read all of volume 1 at least) makes little sense if you don’t know speech-act theory. Dr. Kleine attempted to convey speech-act theory to everyone in a lecture that he claimed would take ten minutes. It took 45. But contextualizing Habermas within the indictment of dialectic found in the Weaver and Burke articles I wrote about yesterday pushed everything into sharper focus in my mind. It is still difficult to describe, but outside the excerpt the class read, I found the connecting link. Habermas cites the motives of “the first international symposium on questions of informal logic”:

  • Serious doubt about whether deductive logic and the standard inductive logic approaches are sufficient to model all, or even the major forms of legitimate argument.


  • A conviction that there are standards, norms, or advice for argument evaluation that are at once logical— not purely rhetorical or domain specific— and at the same time not captured by the categories of deductive validity, soundness, and inductive strength.


  • A desire to provide a complete theory of reasoning that goes beyond formal deductive and inductive logic.

As I dug deeper into the radically confusing thing, I saw more of what Habermas is up to. He is attempting to separate the constantive aspect of language from the performative, a project that originator of speech act-theory John Austin gave up on. In the end, Austin felt that all language was performative, that is to say that it accomplishes work. Language does things. Constantives, a term he thought could be used to describe language that just describes, in the end only make assertions about the state of the world, it does not reflect an actual state— they perform the action of bending the world to fit the language. Habermas does not directly refer to H.P. Grice's theory of implicature, but it seems strangely close. Habermas wants to re-assert the value of language as a constantive force.

Here’s the magic part. Grice asserted that there were free particles of meaning which we draw on when we interpret indirect statements. We make inferences based on social conventions and other things outside the utterance which we turn into meaning. We generate meaning out of thin air. Habermas attempts to explore the possibility that beyond the performative level of language, there is deep structure of communicative action where we transmit the particles of implicature that societies use to create meaning. This makes a great deal of sense. Buried deep inside the stories, the logic, and all modes of communication there are these free particles which are in effect, the conventions or nomos of a society.

We make choices and form arguments based on these implicatures, not just the mechanisms of inductive and deductive logic. The deep implication is that we assign value based on a code that we just don’t understand yet— language.

Not

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Not

Reading Kenneth Burke’s “Definition of Man” resurrected some weird thoughts. He placed a big emphasis on the importance of man’s negative approach to morality: Thou shalt not. However, not is a complex operator. We separate existence by declaring this not that. It’s a gesture of definition; things are divided into named quantities, defined more by what they are not rather than what they are. Unable to establish authority to declare what something is, we reach to define by surrounding it, rather than embracing it. Somehow, this becomes refined into binary negations, which if combined, cancel each other. The picture becomes clearer. Just add it up: if a is not b, and these two quantities cancel each other, then they are opposites. But this is a special case, not the norm, in the land of not.

Dialectic operates on the principle of canceling the oppositions to simplify things. If a is in conflict with b and a is true, then b must be false and discarded, because only one proposition can be true. There is no room for relative levels of true, in the land of not. If a quantity is judged “good” and other things are not like it, then they must be the negation, or “bad.” This is physis. A thing cannot be both what it is, and what it is not. The foundation of this is in the literate creation, the verb to be. But are all questions, particularly moral ones, assertions of being true or false? Sometimes, things just are. Outside the question of right and wrong, there is the purely relative realm of story.

I am beginning to see a large connection between story and sermon. Richard Weaver, in his article “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric” asserts that dialectic “fails to see that language is sermonic.” By substituting an ideal realm of abstract “gods” like truth or deity, it breeds a sort of agnosticism that seeks to break ties with any sort of belief in the truth of culture as a whole, or nomos. It sets up abstract texts, whether they be religious or theoretic, as a measurement of value that sidesteps the question of value itself. It creates a closed system of truth, where everything outside is by definition not truth. This circling of the wagons of culture to exclude culture as a standard in and of itself is dangerous. I like the way he puts it:

This brings us to the necessity of concluding that upholders of mere dialectic, whether they appear in this modern form or another, are among the most subversive enemies of society and culture. They are attacking an ultimate source of cohesion in the interest of a doctrine which can issue only in nullity. It is of no service to man to impugn his feeling about the world qua feeling. Feeling is the source of that healthful tension between man and what is— both objectively and subjectively. If man could be brought to believe that all feeling about the world is wrong, there would be nothing for him but collapse.

The hazards of dialectic reductionism are also neatly expressed by Kenneth Burke by reworking an old nursery rhyme:

If all the thermo-nuclear warheads
Were one thermo-nuclear warhead
What a great thermo-nuclear warhead that would be.

If all the intercontinental ballistic missiles
Were one intercontinental ballistic missile
What a great intercontinental ballistic missile that would be.

If all the military men
Were one military man
What a great military man that would be.

And if all the land masses
Were one land mass
What a great land mass that would be.

And if the great military man
Took the great thermo-nuclear warhead
And put it into the great intercontinental ballistic missile
And dropped it on the great land mass,

What great PROGRESS that would be!

It’s a sticky mess. The coherence of popular opinion creates culture. However, it is constantly assailed as a standard, particularly by those who would call upon an external agency to stabilize a particular position. However, it can’t be excluded in the fashion that dialectic seeks to attain. It took a long time for me to realize that the only difference between dialectic and dialogic is that dialectic implies a power relation. However, it seems that the notion of a dialogic approach to knowledge is also doomed by its multiplicity. I don’t trust popular opinion much either. But must these terms be negations? I respect more and more William Blake’s opinion that there are substantial differences between negations and contraries. Both positions seem essential. As Blake puts it, “Without Contraries there is no progression.”

We preach our positions to one another. We choose among available positions to form our own lifestyles. Society cannot exist without nomos. But we are subject to natural laws of physis. The strong do dominate the weak. But there has to be a balance somewhere, and an understanding of what authorizes one position in relationship to the other. We need to figure out how to assign value without exclusion, but more than that we need to know how to choose what to believe. There is no society without belief.

Karen on the rocks

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Long and short

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Long and short

This is actually the 7am to 9pm day for me, but it went by in a whirl. Both day classes were good, and I think I solved my little conflict problem. Most of the people seem really anxious to learn, and I've already got one paper back revised. I felt really good today.

In Dr. Anderson's class, we watched Dolores Claiborne. The readings we had this week gave me an idea for my paper in the class. I think I'm going to do a textual analysis of Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year to see what the nodes of authority are in the text.

Defoe is trying to make sense of horrendous events at a time when science and religion were first coming into conflict. I haven't read it before, and it is one of the earliest "documentary fictions" in English literature. In 1717, people were grasping for some way to establish standards for reasoning, while the impact of Christianity was still strong. I wonder how it all plays out in a time of crisis? I think I'm going to look into it. I know the book marks a radical turn in political perspective for Defoe, and I wonder how much the tragic experience shifted the "balance of power" in his view.

Dr. Anderson wrote an interesting response to my introductory essay. He said that reading it felt a little like going from 0 to infinity in a quarter mile. I suppose I do that a lot. I take in ideas, and then I take off. He also told me, as we walked to his car tonight, that I sound like I'm studying for my comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. Not really, I'm just trying to make some sense of stuff, and it seems like I'm finding a new piece in the puzzle every day.

In a Dark Time is doing Plath right now, so I had to pick up my copy of Ariel to look through it again. One of my students, Adam, has taken to surfing my site from time to time. He also seems to be doing quite well at blogging. His first essay did remind me of a poem by Plath, so I suppose I'll just have to quote it.


The Night Dances

A smile fell in the grass.
Irretrievable!

remember this one, Rex?And how will your night dances
Lose themselves. In mathematics?

Such pure leaps and spirals—
Surely they travel

The world forever, I shall not entirely
Sit emptied of beauties, the gift

Of your small breath, the drenched grass
Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies.

Their flesh bears no relation.
Cold folds of ego, the calla,

And the tiger, embellishing itself—
Spots, and a spread of hot petals.

The comets
Have such a space to cross,

Such coldness, forgetfulness.
So your gestures flake off—

Warm and human, then their pink light
Bleeding and peeling

Through the black amnesias of heaven.
Why am I given

These lamps, these planets
Falling like blessings, like flakes

Six-sided, white
On my eyes, my lips, my hair

Touching and melting.
Nowhere.

This reminds me of so much more, though. It reminds me that I preferred to photograph dead flowers. Their shapes were so beautiful as they died. It reminds me of the calla lilies around the stage in the Nirvana unplugged performance. It reminds me of a Neil Young lyric: "I see a comet in the sky tonight / makes me feel like I'm all right / I'm moving pretty fast, for my size." It reminds me of the snow that fell last week. It reminds me of the constant calculations, trying to put a frame around the mountains of knowledge that pass across my eyes each week. It reminds me that it's been a long time since I made a woman smile.


Kiss

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Mike and Jolene


Happy

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I really must take note of something.

I meant to do this days ago. In a Dark Time paused for a moment from his fantastic poetic explorations to remark:

Increasingly in our society people need to feel “popular” to be happy. Some seem to even feel a need to attain their “15 minutes of fame.” They will do anything to be noticed, to be “somebody.” If they produce a blog and are desperate enough, their blog might very well become “popular,” or at least get an amazing number of hits. Does that mean that their life “doesn’t suck?” Does this kind of popularity have any meaning at all, except, perhaps, to confirm that an amazing number of people have bad taste?

On the other hand, another person might produce a web page that appeals to a limited audience. As a result, the page gets only a limited number of hits, but it draws the people the blogger was looking for. Does that mean that his life “sucks?” As far as I am concerned, if the person has produced the page he wants to produce, it doesn’t require a certain number of hits to validate the worth of that page. As Emerson says, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”
There was a piece by Emerson I wanted to revisit, and use to expand on his argument, but I don’t have a copy around the house. Before the entry scrolled into oblivion I just had to offer an amen. I can't tell you how amazing it is to see myself linked from many outstanding blogs, and what a treat it is to read them each day.

My site traffic has virtually doubled in the last month. This means that it’s gone from next to nothing to almost something. The majority don’t say anything at all, but a few people have made me feel really good about keeping up with this blogging stuff.

I’ve offered the clarification before, but this isn’t strictly an academic blog. I write about what I’m thinking mostly, and a good portion of that might be considered academic. I don’t think of it that way really. I just think of it as human. I get lonely and I whine in a way that would be totally out of place in an academic setting. Someday, I may split things up but for now I’ve decided to keep the mix of personal and scholarly. Because after all, that’s who I am.

I’m not sure what “I’m looking for” in the way of an audience, I only know that I have really enjoyed coming into contact with people and ideas that otherwise might be missed. I don’t think I was “looking for validation” when I started this thing, just hoping to make a few friends. And I have.

For example, I really want to thank Michele Zappavigna for e-mailing me with the address for her poems. They were a wonderful break for me, and a breath of fresh air when I was feeling a little stale. I encourage people to give them a look.

I really do think that blogging is a good thing, and I want to continue to focus on those great people out there that always give me good things to think about. I wish I had more time to write more interesting stuff, but I want to take advantage of what little time I have to fix this moment, which is a good one for me. It’s a time that I feel like I’m doing something good, and that people care.

When my brain chemistry flips and that feeling fades away, at least I can look into my archives and see that occasionally, I was happy.

Another long day

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Another really long day.

I didn’t even hit my peak 25 paper level. I think I made it through 17 before my brain was fried. These weren’t as good as the last bunch on the average, but I discovered a peculiar phenomenon.

It takes much longer to make good comments on good writing. When I finished going through a really excellent piece, I looked at the paper to see that I had made more suggestions than I ever had on the malformed stuff. It was mostly a petty tightening, removing some surplus words and suggesting more powerful synonyms. But it made the page look like I hated it when I didn’t. I loved it. I suspect the writer will take it in the spirit that it’s intended— suggestions to take something good and make it better. I always hated getting papers back without a mark (it did happen to me a lot as an undergraduate). I knew I wasn’t that good.

The hardest ones to try to figure out how to make suggestions for were ones that I just couldn’t hardly make a mark on at all. I had a paper written almost exclusively in passive voice, for example. There was no way that I could suggest on every sentence that it really needed an agent for the action, otherwise it would just lay there on the page. What can you say when the whole thing just needs to be blown-up and redone?

I had an art teacher do that to me once. He’d just look at what I was doing and say “wrong” and walk on. He’d never offer any suggestion as to how to fix it. I couldn’t do that to someone, but it looks like I didn’t pay that much attention when all I could do was make general suggestions about technique and voice.

But we’re going into the easy part now: research papers. These things are so stock and formulaic that all a person has to do is fill the blanks into the form. They seem more like house painting, compared to trying to create a masterpiece. I read innovative ones from time to time, especially in narrative theory where they try to make the form of the paper the same as the idea they are trying to convey, but the standard college research paper is a fairly dull beast by comparison.

Research itself is the artistic side of it, for me at least. It becomes a real challenge to locate things; collating the finished product is just craft. I could say the same thing of all the bureaucratic crap I’m so far behind on.I finally surveyed the 8am class blogs, and they are mostly doing well. Some people have really taken to the concept. I’d say I have about 75% participation, which is actually better than I expected. People are using them for venting spaces, and that’s a good thing. It will be interesting to see how their research unfolds in this new environment.

What makes me nervous though, is their abilities as readers. How can you possibly write a research paper without correctly summarizing an article? I’ve decided to use this week’s Onion as material. I’m going to have them write abstracts of the stories. Hopefully, this time they will get past summarizing the first paragraph, but we’ll see.

Reading so much stuff on the Sophists has put me behind in my other class readings, and I’ll have to grade about seven more essays in the morning, but for now I’m spent. It was all the tabulating and spreadsheeting after I quit reading papers. Drags a person right down.

Downtown

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downtown Little Rock, Arkansas

New Bob Mould coming

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Blocks of text

News that there will be three new Bob Mould albums this year made me think back. I was a big Hüsker Dü fan way back when. At one time, I thought SST was the record label that would change the world. But given what I’ve been reading today, I thought of a new slant on an old part of the punk aesthetic.

The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü used to print the lyrics to their songs in square blocks of text with no line breaks. It seemed annoying at first, but later it seemed downright conversational. Now that I think about it again, it was rebellion against the verse / chorus / verse structure of traditional rock and roll. Looking at the textual patterns, I see parataxis at work.

Oral memory is a chained thing: it is paratactic, and composed with mostly conjunctive phrases with no subordination. Hypotaxis, or the use of subordinate clauses (such as an embedded chorus) is really a product of literacy. Oral tales seldom exactly repeat, they repeat with variations on a theme. This is done in a few rock tunes, but not many. Purging the rock influence also meant purging the verse / chorus / verse structure. These habits have stayed with a few writers, like Bob Mould. Though doesn’t always stick to it, he seems to be incredibly effective when he does. I was looking at one of my favorite songs of his, “Hanging Tree” from his second solo record and it follows the old pattern:

Another exit on the freeway another bridge I cannot bear to cross alone and I’ve been on the mend I’ve been getting ready to change my name again and once I had a love so fair once I had a reason to keep on left a paragraph taped up on my door it said don’t wait up cause I’m not coming home so I’ve been driving far and wide to find my call in life I’ve been looking for a place where I belong I guess a little pain never killed anyone I guess I feel that way again I can’t come clean I cannot stay got no reason to explain I’ve been here too long I need a change and I hope you’ll understand stained glass window never gonna carry my name been laid to rest in a field of sticks and stones and above my head all that’s left are footsteps of some kid too young too far away from home so don’t send me invitations to your big parade place of residence unknown in my eyes there is no compromise there is no calm before the storm these things happen all the time should I throw myself from the hanging tree? is there a place for those of us who don’t belong I haven’t found it yet
I know these feelings well, and I still haven’t got past them. Now I understand better why these things need not be broken up on a page. They aren’t broken up in life.

It goes on and on and on in an endless narrative. Some people do things. Some people get hurt. Some people express it all too well.

Like Bob Mould.

Infinite Justice

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Infinite Justice makes more sense to me now.

It’s the nomos vs. physis argument all over again! In book one of the Republic, Plato relates Socrates going on and on about justice, reaching such wonderful conclusions as: “in the use of each thing, justice is useless but in its uselessness useful” (333d). Eventually, Thrasymachus gets enough of the doubletalk and boldly asserts that justice is nothing more than the strong dominating the weak. I suspect that Bush is taking up the position of Thrasymachus.

You see, his argument is based on the way things are, physis, or nature. Thrasymachus will have nothing to do with the power of social convention, or nomos. It is the way of nature that the strong will dominate the weak. You can’t fool mother nature. This is exactly what Protagoras claimed to do: to make the weak argument the stronger. However, this was branded as sophistry, and the Platonic view prevailed. The response of Western civilization has been to make justice an abstract quality, separate and apart from nature, an ideal. However, Thrasymachus’ argument can’t be easily refuted. He argues that the unjust, because of their strength, often rise to power and must then be considered the just because of the influence the exert over others. In this way, the unjust profit over the just. The unjust end up controlling the definition of justice.

I feel like I understand my government better after reading the Republic.

Tensing up

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Tensing up

How we vocalize things reflects our view of the world. In Dr. Anderson’s class last week, we watched Pay it Forward to look at the way that verb tenses portray our perception of events. We’d been looking at it in texts, but it was interesting to hear it play out in well written conversation.

The passive voice is a product of the literate age. It removes the agent from a act, making it abstract and hard to grasp. Mistakes were made. Nobody made them, of course. This is the staple of bureaucratic discourse. When Jon Bon Jovi appears on the scene, to tell Helen Hunt that he has recovered and is no longer a drunk, he speaks entirely in the passive voice. He takes no responsibility as an agent of suffering, the suffering just happened. This linguistic construction distances our lives from ourselves, so we can try to make sense of it. But in doing this, we become uninvolved, and safe from criticism.

Kevin Spacey’s revelation of his past shows how he thinks of his experience. He tells the story in past tense, until he gets to the central image of being set on fire by his father. Then, he shifts to present tense. It is as if the traumatic event is still happening inside him, right then, right now. We use language to make sense of time, and we haven't made sense of an event we betray ourselves in our language.

I found out today, reading The Older Sophists, that Protagoras is credited with introducing verb tenses, and the gendering of nouns. His world view was relativistic, and he increased the power of language to convey that relativity. More than that, he expected to be paid for his language skills. His new verbal technology could be had, but only for a price. It is this aspect that troubled most of his contemporaries, and resulted in his being marginalized as an important figure of the classical age. It is the economic aspect that made “sophistry” a dirty word. The problem is, Plato was paid for his skill as well. History seems to have forgotten that bit. We all get tense, when it comes to money.

Temporal ordering is only found in more highly developed creatures; it may be what separates us from lower animals. It’s hard to place perspective on the amount of work it required to transfer this to language, so we could take the next step in evolution. Lower animals live in a perpetual present, untroubled with any notions of past. Traumatic feelings are locked outside of temporal ordering as well, and turn us back to where we began: in a perpetual present. Until we got tense about it, that is.

Competing technologies

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Competing technologies

In The Muse Learns to Write Eric Havelock proposes two theories, a “general theory of orality” coupled with a “special theory of orality” which applies only to Greek culture before the 4th century B.C. It’s a fascinating perspective on the impact of technology with deep resonance to many contemporary fields. The reason for a “special theory,” rather than an all encompassing one is that because we live with the weight of centuries of being literate, and all things are considered through the lens of our perspective as literate humans.

This was not the case when writing as a technology was new. There were no established “rules,” no dominant literate culture to measure and compare with. The impact of a fully developed literate culture on non-literate people can be measured now, however, in the case of Greece, literate culture was just beginning to form. There were no dominant “rules” for it, just competing proposals. Obviously, Plato, and later Aristotle, won. The world hasn’t been the same since. But why Greece? The common explanation is that the Greek alphabetic technology was the first to equivocate the written word completely with the sound of orality. It made it possible to move from an auditory culture into a visual one. It was the proximity to the word as spoken to the word as written.

I really need to learn Greek. The differences introduced by translations pointed out by Havelock really make it difficult to get a sense of what it was like, when writing was new. The verb “to be” was not used much at all in early, orally influenced writing. Things did not have a presence in and of themselves, they were defined solely by their actions. It wasn’t until Plato’s time that concepts like “self” were discussed.

It wasn't until language could be dealt with visually, as a representation outside the speaker, that the concept of “speaker” or “author” became part of our vocabulary. It’s hard to fathom a world without self. Havelock’s case is convincing though, that our concepts of “self” were only made possible through the separation of language from our being through coding it in visual representation. It was making language visible that made us leap into the distant realms of abstraction.

However, it seems as if modern technologies may be the source of yet another quantum leap. It is our ability to record sound, to be able to play it back unaltered, that reintroduces the values of oral culture back to the forefront. All the things that were good about sound-based culture can be recaptured, but with a higher degree of sophistication and complexity. Sound, rather than being immediate and physical, becomes separated and abstract as well. It can develop beyond its tribal roots, and into a new means of transmitting culture. It's interesting to me that folk music also lacked the notion of songwriters, until music could be recorded. Only composers that could write their music down, in visual notation, survive as known quantities, or selves.

I’ve often thought that contemporary music has been richer and more progressive than modern poetry. Music becomes the code of a lifestyle, much like the oral poetic tradition was in the age before writing. The world exists as a mesh of conflicting technologies, and perhaps we are returning to our roots in a way that few people are really taking notice of. The transitions are subtle, and hard to identify when they are in process. Significant differences get lost in the translation.

Rather than surviving in a fleeting world of auditory information which is fixed solid in visual representation, we are now faced with the prospect of dealing with both modes as a source for transmitting societal codes. They are in conflict, not just because of their syntax, but by their paradigm. Sound appears and is gone, but now it's not gone forever. We can return to the voices which please us, any time we like.

Trees in California

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Trees in California march in neat rows.

Havelock

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Sometime, I may get used to having my world view rocked almost every day. But until then, I suppose I'll keep blogging about it. A long time ago, I read Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato. It was an eye-opening experience, but now my eyes are even wider.

The Muse Learns to Write is even better. It's the same topic really, oral vs. written culture, but it was written much later and has nearly as much information in a shorter read. The revolutionary nature of Preface to Plato is placed into context with several other books that were issued the same year (1963), and the subsequent developments are explored. Havelock now attributes the birth of these new perspectives on the rebirth of oral culture through radio. He also draws some innovative new connections regarding the persistence of oral characteristics in communication. We repeat things and memorize them because it gives us pleasure. Think of children's nursery rhymes, with their repetition. Think of the way that a child prefers to watch or listen to the same tapes over and over. Orality is still programmed into us, even in these days of literate culture.

I read the whole thing this afternoon, but I keep coming back to it. Havelock raises interesting differences that slipped by me before. Oral cultures do not deal with abstract concepts, only agents and actions. Memory is the only tool to preserve society, rather than a fall-back written text. Things must be dealt with directly and without artifice, because otherwise they won't be remembered. Havelock states the case for narrative well:

The narrative format invites attention because narrative is for most people the most pleasurable form that language, spoken or written, takes. Its content is not ideology but action, and those situations which action creates. Action requires agents who are doing who are doing something or saying something about what they are doing, or having something done to them. A language of action rather than reflection appears to be a prerequisite for oral memorization.
This is a really powerful spin to place on the communication process, and new media, according to Havelock, are perhaps accelerating this return to narrative.

Big stuff. I've only glanced at it so far, but The Older Sophists is an incredible collation of texts. Briefly reviewing the entries on Protagoras, it seems as if he's the one responsible for the first sort of speech-act classifications for discourse. I think there's a paper in here somewhere, I just need to find it and write it.

More notes

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Notes to self:

I really must read Carol Barton's "To stand upright will ask thee skill": The Pinnacle and the Paradigm more carefully later. It is an interesting look at the core issues of Paradise Regain'd during the temptation of Jesus. They are rhetorical. While Eve was easily tempted by Satan's rhetoric in Paradise Lost, Jesus is not seduced. The battlefield of Paradise Regain'd is the words themselves, rather than a more dramatic war scene. It's about resisting temptation, and forgiveness, or as Barton puts it: Christian heroism.

Another strange nugget: Was Napoléon a Junkie?

Accept that Napoléon's body did indeed contain a very high level of arsenic. Does that justify the assumption that he was poisoned - murdered?

At the beginning of the 19th century, most of today's recreational drugs were not known in Europe.. . .the recreational drugs of Europeans were extraordinary to our modern thinking: such things as arsenic, strychnine and antimony.

These substances, and others, were widely used in the most unexpected ways. For example, ladies rubbed arsenic on their faces to make their skin white; they dropped belladonna into their eyes to dilate the pupils for a 'wide-eyed' look; men had their horses' coats brushed with antimony to make them glossy. Deadly poisons all, but easily obtained.

Arsenic was also used by some as a mind-altering drug, much as marijuana or cocaine is used today. In small doses it gave the user a feeling of well-being, strength, and sexual staying power.

But arsenic was very much a drug of dependence. The user was forced to continue to ingest the substance in larger and larger quantities, both to obtain the effect, and also to stave off withdrawal symptoms. Dosages soon reached levels that would be immediately fatal to a non-user, yet to cease would bring on the terrible symptoms of acute arsenical poisoning. Inevitably, doses reached levels intolerable even to the experienced user's body, and physical deterioration and death ensued.
Now that's an odd theory. I'd like to see some contemporary accounts. Where is "Confessions of an Arsenic Eater?"

The Jane Austen Society is having an essay contest. It's only a $500 prize, but it's open to virtually everyone. Details at the web page. For the fans of the Gothic genre, a bunch of new stuff has been added to Beckfordiana, the William Beckford website. I haven't explored this one yet, but I really want to.

Need something to read? The Diaries of Samuel Pepys have been marked down significantly. All eleven volumes have been marked down to $49.98 at Daedalus books. Now that's a deal. If you're into 17th or 18th century diaries, that is.

Every time I turn around there's another interesting conference. It's like these people are reading my mind:

Emotions in Early Modern Europe and Colonial North America November 7-10, 2002

Junior and senior scholars are invited to submit paper proposals for a conference entitled "Emotions in Early Modern Europe and Colonial North America," to be held at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., USA, on November 7-10, 2002.

"Interest in 'the emotional' has burgeoned in the last decade, not only in anthropology, but in psychology, sociology, philosophy, history and feminist studies" Catherine Lutz and Geoffrey White wrote in 1986. They could have made the same statement with even more justification in 2002.

I won't list the proposal categories, but suffice it to say that they are fascinating. I wish I was closer to DC, just so I could go to the thing. On a final note, I notice that there is now a Kant discussion list at Yahoo. That's all I need, another mailing list I don't have time to read!

Trees

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Long day grading essays

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Sheesh.

You know, when you read other people’s writing for ten hours straight, some of it good, some of it bad, it just makes it hard to come up with anything interesting to say in your blog. Hopefully, people won’t think ill of me. I generate a lot of words, but I try to make them count.

Today flat out exhausted me, and I’ve learned my limit. I can’t read and comment intelligently on more than 25 essays a day. Most of them were really good, but a few pissed me off. Why in the hell would someone at a university choose to write a rambling mess about how they hate school? I’m easy, but that was just over the top. Thankfully, there were enough diamonds in the rough to keep me amused.

A bunch of new books were delivered today, but I didn’t even get to open them. This teaching nonsense is a lot of work. However, I did find the perfect essay to use for teaching the basic form and citation style for an essay, How to make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich (Courtesy of the Journal of Mundane Behaviour). Though it’s not written in conventional narrative form, it easily could be. The outline style shows a good organizational strategy laid bare, at the very least. I think I’ll compare and contrast this with a good bibliographic essay, The Relationship between Schizophrenia and Mysticism. There’s quite a range here, and I suspect I’ll tell them to aim somewhere in the center.

Revenge

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I took my snow day seriously.

I watched movies, including recently downloaded copies of Zoolander and The Count of Monte Christo. I actually didn't think of much at all, other than the constant theme of revenge which permeates many of the stories that seem to survive and be retold. I've often wondered how we ever got from “Do unto others...” to “An eye for and eye...” Forgiveness is a hard quality to come by, unless of course you’re stupid. There has been a lot of writing about it going on, but it seems as if we don’t transmit the story unless the evil guy actually gets his just reward. It’s the instrument of vengeance that fuels the debate, no one seems to take the “vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord” part very seriously. Is it necessary to deal out punishment to be a good citizen? I don’t think so, but that’s what the master narratives say.

I do want to clarify one thing though: I have never sought to separate feeling from thinking or to value it more highly. Thinking, for me, involves both feeling and reasoning. They work together, and recent evidence I’ve been looking at really suggests that they function differently. There is a false sense of hierarchy proposed that implies that reason can control feeling, and thus is more important. I keep after a holy grail of sorts, the idea that they can be cooperative and synergistic, by teasing out the differences.

However, that synergy in some cases doesn’t seem to be a good one. The revenge question is one strong case. Reason would suggest that forgiving an enemy, and allowing them to make amends for their wrongs would be more productive in the long haul. However, feelings seem to dictate that a need for closure will not be achieved until the unjust are punished. It’s a complex mess, to be sure, and the binary division of the two does not answer fundamental questions about human behavior. Seeing the two factors in thinking separated and at odds with each other is a model of limited utility, but it is the most convenient way of talking about it sometimes. Another more limited way of approaching it would be to separate conscious vs. unconscious desires and motives, because it does seem that our emotional beings are often subsumed, causing them to be manifest in odd ways. That’s why meditation or hypnosis may be a big tool to control that uncontrollable side, to bring people into harmony with both sides of their “thinking”.

the view from the patio

Life is complicated. So is thinking. Obviously, I do too much thinking most of the time. It pisses me off how quickly it starts up again. Yesterday, I was mostly enjoying the snow, and being stupid like Zoolander.

It's really pretty stuff, especially when you can look at it from a nicely heated apartment.

No freezing rain this time, no power outages.

Just a nice day off.





Caffeinated

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When rock was caffeinated.

I do believe I could give Kiri a run for her money regarding the “most caffeinated blogger” award. It’s miracle stuff as far as I’m concerned. If you listen to some, they claim that caffeine fueled the industrial revolution. Before the introduction of coffee and tea into England, people just couldn’t stay awake for those long factory hours. However, a snip in a review of an old favorite record of mine triggered an odd chain of thought.

Stav Sherez wrote a compelling paean to the legacy of the Dream Syndicate’s first album:

Though their reference points were obvious, the Dream Syndicate created a sound quite unlike anything that came before them, or indeed, after. This is where American rock music reinvented itself from the decaffeinated wastelands of AOR, where it blowtorched the recent past and made way for a future that was to include Grunge, Post Rock and alt.country. Quite simply some of the most wildly exciting music ever made.
Decaffeinated wastelands? I really like that image a lot. When people talk about the 80s as if nothing beyond MTV happened, it makes me sick. There was more. In 1982, I was not only caffeinated, I was fueled by even more outrageous stimulants. So were a lot of people. One side effect of the non-caffeine variety stimulants is that they make you thirsty, so by 1985 the Dream Syndicate were spread out and sprawling drunks. But not in 1982, the frantic energy of that record is hard to match.

But the caffeine reference reminded me of a pilgrimage that Rex and I made to the Music Machine in North Hollywood in 1985 to see Danny and Dusty (Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and Dan Stuart of Green on Red) with an exciting opening band called Thin White Rope. Danny and Dusty were drunk, but Guy Kyser, standing at the edge of this photo, was caffeinated. Their show was pure sculptured feedback, building Spanish caves in the long cavernous hall. It was one of those shows I still think about today.

Maybe it was the caffeine. Maybe that’s what made this era in rock so great to me. I’ve never been one for atmospheric music. I want music to make my eyes bug out.

I found an old interview which covers the problem of information overload nicely:

MONDO 2000: Do you think the overload of information makes it harder to find oneself?

Guy Kyser: No, you can find yourself more easily. But it's a lot harder to get someone else to pay attention once you do. Everyone's already overloaded

Lucky

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Feeling lucky, punk?

Self and esteem

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Yay! A snow day.

Lucky me, and all that. Just when I have 50 essays to read and grade, the weather gives me a break. Light fluffy stuff has been falling outside, not much of it so far, but being the paranoid state, they have already declared the schools closed. So I can get caught up a bit.

I’ll have to read some of those self-esteem articles that several blogs are on about right now, but I suspect that it’s just more of the usual:

SELF=BAD

MARXIST/CAPITALIST COGS IN THE WHEEL= GOOD

It goes back to the postmodern party line, built on myopia: romanticism= the cause of all the worlds problems. Issues of self and self-esteem in romanticism are actually quite complex. Issues of self-esteem were also strongly connected with cult behavior and susceptibility to fascism by Eric Hoffer. Destroying self esteem is the first step in subjugating people, and most philosophers which deny the importance of self are first in line to support repressive regimes. History ought to count for something in this mess. Don’t we ever learn?

However, there is something to be said for Henry Miller's perspective, paraphrased from memory: “In America, everyone is taught that they can grow up to be president; people in Europe don’t suffer from this delusion, so they are happier with just being what they are.” Runaway self-esteem is a problem; it ends up in unrealistic expectations and unhappiness.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in ancient Greece lately, and as I begin to contrast this with Rome, it seems that there is an increased separation between the general population and the perception of knowledge. The Greeks were concerned with educating everyone to be good citizens. This concern seems to be lost, as rhetoric is stripped of its power as tool to improve people as moral evaluative beings. Rhetoric instead becomes the tool of the ruling class, bent more on legislating and developing policy. It’s as if they gave up on the idea that ordinary people had a right to determine right and wrong. This became the province of law, which was applied by those who were specially trained to deal with it. The public becomes largely unimportant, and a nuisance.

Especially if they have pesky qualities like self-esteem. They’re much harder to subjugate that way. They’re just supposed to feel lucky that they have such great leaders to see them through. I tend to think it’s because somewhere along the line we gave up on the idea that we could train people to be good citizens. We can make them good mechanics, good carpenters, good businessmen, but good people? Nope, that’s an accident of birth. All men are created equal, it’s just that some are more equal than others.

Thomas Carlyle argued that lesser men need their great men to look up to. He was a fan of Kings, and scared stiff of democracy. Most intellectuals through history have been, including Plato with his Republic filled with the best and brightest. Only a vocal minority, the Sophists, argued that there was no level criterion to measure the best by. It’s only the continual process of valuation that causes self-esteem to be a problem at all. Since we apparently can’t teach people how to value things without resorting to edicts from our “great men,” self-esteem is always going to be problematic.

Just tell them to shut up and shop, yeah, that's the ticket.

More

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Tipping points of negativity

I almost never read the mainstream press. It’s a defensive gesture against the negativity, the constant carping about surface characteristics that never reaches beyond the shallow puddle of its readership to wonder why things are the way they are. I like to assume, though its sometimes a stretch, that people don’t really want to disconnect themselves from the world through such gross generalizations.

A while back, Mike Sanders uttered a Dickens-like plea:

Maybe we can create a Tipping Point of positivity. Maybe 150 bloggers who consistently recognize the virtues of other bloggers. Longer blogrolling list. More accolades. More cross-blogging. More thinking. More feeling. More laughing. More listening. More hearing. More emoting. More of whatever you want to do.
The cry for more is a pretty universal human thing. But then, reading a horrible oversimplification by John C. Dvorak reminded me that some people want less.

He gives away this point of view in his closing summation: “Whatever the reason for the Blog phenomenon, it's not going to go away anytime soon. The main positive change: far fewer cat pictures!” How nice for you, to turn what you seem to see as a retched pool of writing into a positive thing. What really kills me is his musing on the motivations of people who blog:

  • Ego gratification.


  • Some people need to be the center of attention. It makes them feel good about themselves to tell the world what important things they've been doing and what profound thoughts they've been having. Curiously, while this looks like the most obvious reason for a Web log, I think it's probably the least likely reason, since it's too trite and shallow.
Unless Mr. Dvorak hasn’t noticed, the web has no center. The majority of writers can’t begin to hope for an audience beyond a handful of people each day. Why should this reason be excluded for being trite and shallow, when he has already conceded that pictures of family and pets have long been established as common web content? Methinks he doth protest too much, from the bully pulpit of a mass circulation magazine where he is featured as a star ego.
  • Antidepersonalization.


  • When people begin to think that they are nothing more than a cog in the wheel of society, they look for any way to differentiate themselves. The Web log proves they are different. Just read it. You'll see.
If this is the case, why do relatively few blogs provide any sort of specific personal information? Why do they often seem to be carefully constructed fictions, alternate personalities? Why are memes and links so popular, where people ape content from other sites? I tend to think that the process of consubstantiation plays a much larger role than individuation. While the individuated blogs are usually the best, they are hardly in the majority. It is hard work to convey a sense of personality through writing alone.
  • Elimination of frustration.


  • Day-to-day life, especially in the city, is wrought with frustration, and the Web log gives people the ability to complain to the world. You get to read a lot of complaining in these logs. If you think I'm a complainer, oh boy!
Complaining and/or confessing are big parts of all human discourse. Why single this aspect out? How about the desire for play, the desire to amuse through sharing the latest web diversions?
  • Societal need to share.


  • As a cynic who gets paid to write, I have a hard time with this explanation. But it seems some people genuinely like to "share," and this is one way.
Gosh, I feel sorry for you. You can’t figure out that people who don’t get paid still want to write? It must be that they really want to be “professional writers”
  • Wanna-be writers.


  • A lot of people want to be published writers. Blogs make it happen without the hassle of getting someone else to do it or having to write well—although there is good writing to be found. Some is shockingly good. Most of it is miserable. I expect to see those Open Learning classes around the country offering courses in Blog writing.
I feel really sorry for this guy. There’s a human need to communicate, and a human need for more contact with their fellow humans. It completes us, and helps us become ourselves.

I remember one explanation I heard for the birth of the novel— it started as a form of gossip. That’s why the earliest forms are epistolary, composed from letters. One person telling stories and secrets to another. Then it evolved into more complex structures, built on the need to share stories with each other. To gossip, to share, not to gratify ego or earn a living. It’s just talking, in a global form. At least it seems that way to me. And I would like to see more of it, not less, myself.

Amygdala

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Amygdala?

this is your brain

I never even knew I had one. Like most folks, my knowledge of the grey lump inside my skull was limited to some pretty basic divisions: cerebrum, cerebellum, etc. I never stopped to think that there was a lizard in there.

Most folks that have had the basics know that the cerebellum or hindbrain controls the autonomic functions like breathing and basic muscle controls. It's the oldest part of the apparatus. That section, and the midbrain control most of our "instinctual" behaviors.

The newer part, the cerebrum, contains the main cognitive stuff; 60% is dedicated to associative thinking, making connections as it were. The remaining 40% has been related to processing specific motor and sensory activities. Where are those pesky memories and such? Are they controlled by these "new parts" of the human brain?

this is your lizard brain

In the core of the cerebellum is a leftover reptilian, or perhaps lizard-type brain. That's where memories are processed. Research has shown that the hippocampus is responsible for processing conscious, declarative, explicit recollections of events. It seems to sort out the autobiographical memory.

The hippocampus is not well developed at birth, but the neighboring area, the amygdala is. Research suggests that the emotions are first processed by the aymgdala, which gives them their significance first before the cognitive process takes over. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes good sense.


Fight or flight? We don't have time to think it over and cogitate on it. Especially when we are newly born! Our emotional responses to stimuli govern our very survival. So with good reasons, our emotions are processed separate from our rational selves. They bypass the normal associative structures that our brains dedicate so much real estate to. Emotions are relayed to our cognitive machine, but only after they have impacted our core limbic system. They are placed in memory before we get the chance to think about it.

This is big stuff. I'm still processing it, but I wanted to sketch a rough outline while it was still fresh. You can't reason yourself out of feeling things, and it seems that way by design. This has broad implications, to think that there is a completely separate area that makes us feel— and that we feel before we think. The initial stages of memory are non-declarative, implicit, and unconscious. We can't stop them, or process them away. Emotions matter, and they begin even before we are able to think about them. Memory begins before rationality can make any sense of it, in a tiny little almond shaped place called the amygdala.

Another interesting thing about the differentiation in real estate is that the hippocampus deals with temporal ordering, whereas the emotional center, the amygdala, is largely atemporal— emotions are not memorized in a narrative form. They are processed without temporal ordering. They are imagistic, abstract, and not organized in the same way as other information.

Oh, and one more thing— notice that all these structures are buried deep, away from the surface that might be damaged. We can survive without our reason, but not without our instinctual mechanisms and feelings!

Quick notes

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Quick notes to self:

Hopefully, I'll be able to process a bunch of stuff I just learned about parts of the brain that I didn't know that I had and write an intelligent blog entry about it. But in the meantime, since I've got to leave for class soon, I'll just note some interesting links.

A link from Wood s lot has turned up a great issue from 2000 of the Janus Head Review, Regarding a Critical Rhetoric. There's just too much great stuff in there to talk about right now, including rhetoric and dreams, not to mention stuff about psychology and rhetoric. Great idea generating stuff.

I strongly recommend the new exhibition at Photo-eye of the works of Elijah Gowin. I was quite impressed both by the photographs, and the issues he brings up in his statements:

Artist Statement

Raised in the North by Southern parents, I have always considered my Southern roots to provide a true sense of home and place. A slice of family land in Virginia, guarded by stories of relatives long dead, provides me with a feeling of belonging. Yet this landscape of thick, tangled underbrush is restricting as well as comforting. My acute awareness of place thus involves both a closeness and separateness from these surroundings. Flannery O’Connor felt a similar polarity in her relationship to her home in Georgia when she said "To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world." Often separated from this region, I have been able to clarify my interest in thinking of place as an artistic influence.


Process Statement

In this body of work, titled Hymnal of Dreams, I am presenting a new set of constructions, rituals and characters based upon history and personal experiences of the South. Often narrative, these images present some question, and show the struggle for resolution. This constructed landscape, although arising from the past is about searching for meaning in the present. How we handle, arrange, and value objects and archetypes reflects our contemporary state of mind.
Both assertions are very close to my own praxis. The only problem I have is with the "struggle for resolution." I don't think that most things can be resolved. They can only be handled, arranged, and valued. However, his notation of the "paradox of place" is something that I've been wrestling with in these pages myself. There's more to expand here as well.

It's all about the present. Bringing things together into an acceptance of consciousness as we can know it. Augustine was on about that a lot too. Geez, I think too much, but I love it!

Without Jesus, you have nothing

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Santa Maria, California

Complicating binaries

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Complicating binaries

I was reading a citation on The Obvious about bending to religion, and it dovetailed with a metaphoric problem. How do we deal with relationships in the world?

Bending is perhaps the most pervasive metaphor applied to that. We bend, modify our goals or will, in the face of the wind of civilization. Or do we? I encountered a far more troubling metaphor from Dr. Anderson, he sees the process of social integration as a surgical one: we suture ourselves into the world. It’s a painful image, to be sure— it’s hardly as elegant or as pleasant sounding. But perhaps it’s more accurate; I’m not really sure yet. Severe disruptions or traumas are like painfully ripping out the stitches of our carefully woven lives. It aggravates our flesh, and is guaranteed to form scar tissue.

I am certain that the ties that bind us to communities are not easily broken; they become connected systems, with channels transmitting codes into us as we replicate our codes in others. Rex and I were talking on the phone last night, and he mentioned to me that the most common trauma that hypnotherapists are asked to deal with is loneliness. It seems impossible to feel completely connected to others, so perhaps all relationships are of a stitched variety, and when the stitches are weak, we chafe against the loneliness. Humans are dismal creatures when alone; it takes community to accomplish much of anything.

At the extreme, it can be suggested that we have no real identity outside our community formed values. But the cry of the damaged self, a constant current in most expressive writing, permeates most of literature. So far, I don’t buy most of the efforts to explain it away. I really like the conclusion to Dr. Anderson’s article “Suture, Stigma, and the Pages That Heal” regarding the gap in our understanding of real human writing. Writers that express themselves, particularly in pain, foul up the neat theoretical binaries:

These writers complicate the simple binaries that underlie so much discussion of writing at our conferences and in our professional publications — academic/personal, political/solipsistic, self/other, postmodern/romantic. They invite us to look for a more complex interaction of discourse, other, act, society, history, and subject, one in which the self may or may not exist (depending on which side of the theoretical line one comes down on), but in which the sense of self plays a vital role.
It seems sad to me that we have to talk of a world without self. The foundation of democracy, and capitalism, is enlightened self-interest. It seems to work pretty well, though of course there are many problems. The problem is inextricably linked to its foundation— that funky notion called self, which now must be couched in such jargon as “sense of self”
By sense of self, I mean that part that wrestles with the other, the part that feels the pressure of stigma and breaks the sutures by which it is bound to a hard subjectivity it cannot occupy if it is to survive. I mean the part that feels pain, love, joy, and grief, the part that acts, the part that speaks across the pages to bring a future where silence means respect, where people can let go and take up again, where difference is real because wholeness is possible, where personal, academic, and political are inextricably bound, and were we may rise, phoenix-like, from the language of confusion and come to know who it is that we have become. I have seen it happen.
Dr. Anderson is an eloquent fellow. I like him.

I do believe that writing helps us figure out who we are becoming. The sense that we can know “what we have become” seems a bit foolish, because the flux never stops. Writing taught me that. I am never the same person who finishes writing something that I was, before the writing was begun. It’s part of a process of change, of deepening and broadening the horizons. Of living.

Because I am living, I feel and think. The two are inseparable. I write about both.

You Pass

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You pass

Digging deep into the transitions that society has traveled through has been my ponderous project for a while. There are convenient versions strewn all about, the Reader’s Digest version of history, which receives its stamp of approval in survey courses that seek to prepare people for life. You pass, move on to the next step of becoming a productive citizen. But things are never quite that simple.

The Romantic poets were not a “movement” of poets that sought to valorize the individual, celebrate nature, etc.— it was a bunch of people in a particular place and time that didn’t really agree on much at all. So why do we lump them? Because it’s convenient. Six weeks and you have your requisite dose of literature of that period, then it’s time to move on. You may confidently state ”Beauty is truth, truth beauty” without the slightest clue of what Keats was on about in the poem.

Lesson 1: any time you read anything it is important to keep track of who the implied speaker is. This is me, Jeff Ward, coming at you through the miracle of verbal and internet technologies. But these are but impressions of a moment, subject to change without notice. I’ll save you the “my blog isn’t me” speech. You’ve heard that before, and soon you’ll be hearing that declamation as often as you hear the “Beauty is truth” bit. I try to provide ample context for my remarks, but there are always things unstated, bits of my history you don’t know. Digesting a poem to its punch line leaves much of the conversation out.

The next time you hear those lines, read the poem: Ode on a Grecian Urn was written by a man obsessed with the difficulty of embracing joy. It fades, or is crushed like a grape against the palate. So he interrogates an object, and imagines what this beautiful object might reply. The urn, unlike joy, has remained:

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I have adopted the same punctuation as the University of Toronto version of the poem, but there are variants. In the Modern Library version, the last two lines are punctuated:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Notice the difference? In the first version, the urn speaks the conclusion. In the second, the urn delivers the line, and the poet comments that it’s all we need. This issue is hotly debated, because there are three variant versions, all with some authority. What difference does this make? Well, what would you expect a beautiful work of art to say? The response seems logical in both versions, yet the poet has complained about the evanescence of satisfaction in the lines leading up to this. Why would he capitulate and leave with the final comment? It makes more sense to me that the urn would say the final line, rather than Keats who was never satisfied with closed, judgmental moralizing.

Reading carefully is a difficult thing for most people. They’d rather let someone else digest it for them. So they can take the test, give the right answer, and pass. But there aren’t any “right answers” regarding this poem, just questions about what Keats really intended. And we can’t ask him. You can however, ask me to clarify what I mean. I’m still alive.

And I choose not to pass, but to linger. I like thinking about the big questions raised by little distinctions.

Cheese

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cheese

Spotlight

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Avoiding the spotlight

Some do it out of habit, while others zoom right in on the center of attention. I’ve never been able to figure out why some people crave attention so much. I suppose that for some, it’s an assertion of their individuality. Look at me. I’m different.

Vanity license plates on cars bug me. Sitting in a fast-food drive through on Friday, I was behind “Kanky”— maybe it’s some kind of Arkansas thing. Or, it could be that kinky was taken. As I got out on the road and headed toward the university, I came face to face with “JDUBBYA”— as a “JW” this one really bugged me. Any connection with the snot in the Whitehouse wouldn’t find itself plastered on the back of my car. Ohio plates on that one though, it seems that bad taste crosses state lines. But it does often command the spotlight.

Leaving school, there was a traffic snarl. I had to turn the other way. I found myself in a forest called Boyle Park, with no sign of city nearby, three blocks from the mess. I hadn’t traveled that road before, and there was little sign of human presence save the ancient steel bridges across the crisscrossing of hundreds of small streams. It dawned on me that in nature, some things are colored and arrayed to attract attention, and some things are camouflaged. Usually, this is tied to reproductive behavior.

Maybe that’s it. Look at me. I’m lovable. I put silly things on my car for you.

Will you die for me?

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She used to always ask: “Will you die for me?”

What can a lover say to that? When you don’t value yourself much, it’s easy to say yes. I said yes. She didn’t believe me. Her husband would die for her, and seemed to have proved this to her in ways beyond question. It didn’t matter that she claimed that she didn’t love him anymore. The question was, if I was to replace his role in her life, “Would I die?”

I’ve got a problem with dying. Lots of my friends have done it, and they made it seem simple. A bit too many drugs, and the job is done. A short step off a tall building, and it’s done. No more pain, no more worries. But I have a problem. As fucked-up as it seems most of the time, I still love life. I really don’t want to miss anything. And if you’re not here, there’s nothing more to see. I like seeing new stuff all the time.

That doesn’t mean that I’m afraid of death; if I could trade my life for someone else’s happiness, I suppose I’d do it. But if I died, I suspect it wouldn’t make anyone happy at this point. It might even make a precious few sad. Why are love and death so often equated?

This isn’t new. Love is often written as a tragic thing, but I think that’s a bad story to accept. I think it should be a creative thing, not a destructive thing. Maybe I’m just weird that way. But the issues it always clouds are truth and morality. I didn’t see the lies until it was too late. I might as well have been dead when it was over, but I wasn’t. I was still looking at the world through sad eyes, waiting for what happens next.

Love Me

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Window shop for love


Your case is not so extraordinary, beyond thought or reason. The Goddess in her anger has smitten you, and you are in love.

What wonder is this? There are many thousands that suffer with you.

So, you will die for love! And all the others, who love, and who will love, must they die too?

How will that profit them? The tide of love, at its full surge, is not withstandable.

Upon the yielding spirit she comes gently, but to the proud and the fanatic heart she is a torturer with the brand of shame.

She wings her way through the air; she is in the sea, in its foaming billows; from her everything, that is, is born.

For she engenders in us and sows the seed of desire whereof we're born, all our children, living on the earth.

Euripides, Hippolytus.




From Prodicus to Euripides

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From Prodicus to Euripides

I briefly mentioned an advance copy of an article I was going to read from my professor, Dr. Michael Kleine, regarding the problem of creating a kinder, gentler modern rhetoric. I've been digesting it for a few days, it's called "The Heuristic Potential of Rhetoric Reclaimed: Toward Imagining a Techne of Dialogical Arrangement." The article is actually easy to state in plain language: Dr. Kleine has suggested that what we know about conversational discourse analysis (he is a linguist) can be applied to the problem of rhetorical invention to provide a new mode of rhetoric.

He's actually promoting a schizophrenic sort of writing, a writing that emulates the model of conversational "turns" where points of view are interrogated and defended in two voices. Not in the agonistic sense of classical rhetoric, where a stronger position is defended against a weaker one, but in a space which emulates the conversational "floor" where positions are treated on an equal basis. At first, it seemed like it was delusional: how can one speaker be both advocate and challenger? Then, I discovered an example in Prodicus.

In "Heracles on the Crossroad" Prodicus (in a secondhand account) describes how Heracles meets Virtue and Vice. The oration began with a sensual description of these two women, but narration ceases as the conversation between the two possibilities begins. The core of the "pitch" on both sides is pleasure— pleasure now from Vice, or pleasure in the future, from the Gods, by Virtue. At no point does the orator seem to favor one over the other, and the actual decision made by Heracles is only implied. The rhetor doesn't judge, or point, or direct the argument at all. The argument is purely supplied through conversation.

I remember how much I hated Plato when I first read him. Aristotle too. The reason why was that their motives and steering of the "dialogues" was just so blatant. This is not the case with Prodicus, his approach seems nearly identical to the techne suggested by Dr. Kleine. Trying to figure out the 5th century B.C. is pretty tough, and the perspectives of the Sophists or Plato and Aristotle are not the only ones available. The dramatists, like Aristophanes and Euripides put in their two cents too.

I decided to read Hippolytus again. I first found this play, oddly enough, through a Thin White Rope song, "Some Velvet Morning." It's a cover of a Lee Hazlewood song, and it's just haunting.

Some velvet morning when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you about Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet morning when I'm straight
There's a video, with Lee and Nancy Sinatra riding horses on a beach, which makes little sense until you figure out who Phaedra is.

Short synopsis: Hippolytus, a chaste young man and bastard son of Phaedra, is hopelessly in love with Artemus (the goddess). Aphrodite gets pissed off, because he isn't paying her tribute since he won't fall in love with a human. She forces Phaedra to fall in love with him (in the non-socially acceptable way). Phaedra goes mad, holding back those forbidden feelings. She eventually breaks down and confesses to her nurse, and the nurse professes an oddly familiar point of view:

The life of man entire is misery:
he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity.
But something other dearer still than life
the darkness hides and mist encompasses;
we are proved luckless lovers of this thing
that glitters in the underworld: no man
can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding
what is, and what is not: we know nothing of it.
Idly, we drift, on idle stories carried.
How postmodern is that? Not bad for 428 BC. The nurse will have little to do with words as a solution: "Your words are wounds. Where will your tale conclude?" Euripides' argument, conveyed by the nurse, is much the same as Shelley's. Love is the ruling force of all:
The chaste, they love not vice of their own will,
but yet they love it. Cypris [Aphrodite], you are no god.
You are something stronger than a God if that can be,
You have ruined her and me and all this house.
And through Phaedra, Euripides indicts those who would practice rhetoric:
This is the deadly thing which devastates
well-ordered cities and the homes of men—
that's it, the art of oversubtle words.
It's not the words ringing delight in the ear
that one should speak, but those that have the power
to save their hearer's honorable name.
Oddly enough, Hippolytus has a teacher (perhaps a Sophist?). Since words won't do the job, the nurse decides to tell Hippolytus the problem thinking he might be able to physically, ahem, take care of the craving. Big mistake. When the nurse begs him to be silent and not tell anyone, he responds: "Why not? A pleasant tale makes pleasanter telling when there are many listeners."

These words doom everything. Phaedra hangs herself, and leaves a note claiming that Hippolytus raped her. Theseus, Phaedra's husband, banishes him. Theseus's father was Poseidon, and he utters a curse on Hippolytus which daddy takes care of. As Hippolytus rides away on the beach, a huge bull comes out of the ocean and wrecks his chariot, mortally wounding him (this explains the video!). Artemus appears in the end to tell Theseus the truth, and the last discussion is on the futility of teaching as Hippolytus is dying:

Theseus:

What fools men are! You work and work for nothing,
you teach ten thousand tasks to one another,
invent, discover everything. One thing only
you do not know: one thing you never hunt for—
a way to teach fools wisdom.

Hippolytus:

Clever indeed
would be the teacher able to compel
the stupid to be wise! This is no time
for such fine logic chopping. I am afraid
your tongue runs wild through sorrow

Theseus:

If there were some token now, some mark to make the division
clear between friend and friend, the true and false!
All men should have two voices, one the just voice,
and one as chance would have it. In this way
the treacherous scheming voice would be confuted
by the just, and we should never be deceived.

While still implied to be agonistic, this contains Dr. Kleine's argument in a nutshell. I wasn't expecting to find it offered in 428 BC. But, then, you never know. Some good ideas just don't want to quit. I wonder if he knows about this? I suppose I'll have to mention it to him next Tuesday.

New Finds

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Some stuff worth noting

Following one of Luke's links, I found some happy news underneath a woeful tale. It seems that Blake's original watercolors for Blair's Grave have surfaced!

I really hope a facsimile is published. These drawings were important to a point I was making in a paper, and I used several prototype drawings to illustrate the way the image which forms the frontispiece to Jerusalem was well wrought. A brief history of these drawings casts an interesting light on the nature of genius— it is the nature of genius to get screwed.

Illustrating Blair's poem "The Grave" was to be a big turning point in Blake's career. He spent over a year producing illustrations for Edward Young's Night Thoughts early in his career, which was a dismal commercial failure. Only 42 of 300 illustrations were used, and in desperation he accepted the patronage of William Haley and moved from London to Felpham, on the coast. Though hopes were high, he didn't find much relief there. In the end, he was accused of sedition and moved back to London worse off than when he began.

The contract with Cromek to illustrate "The Grave" should have been a good start at getting back on his feet. Though he produced incredible work for it, Cromek was unsure of the salability of Blake's engravings. So he had the drawings engraved by Schavronetti instead, cheating Blake out of the bulk of his money. The engravings by Schavronetti are competent, but they don't have the real spirit of Blake. Now, for the first time, we can see what those illustrations were supposed to look like. I'm jazzed.

For those with a more fiscally interested bent, like Cromek, think of the return on the investment these days: the drawings were lost after their last sale in 1836 for one pound five shillings. They are now expected to sell for over a million. Nice profit, if you can enjoy it. Blake's currently residing in a potters field, and it won't do him any good.

Oh, and I agree with you about Wil Wheaton, Luke. My first impression was: So? What's next, a blog by Gary Coleman?

Language is a lava lamp? There’s just something really nice about this image. After all, I do often sit and stare at it for hours. Yes, I am easily amused.

Camile Paglia argues eloquently for the classics. I’ve been reading more Greek philosophy than ever in the last few years, and it’s amazing how little the questions have really changed. There will be a lot more posts coming in that direction, right now I’m trying to digest Prodicus.

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