March 2002 Archives
One of the strange side-effects of my trip, and my uncertainty, was an inability to concentrate on the book I’m supposed to be reading, Dispatches by Michael Herr. Instead, I spent some time on A Thousand Plateaus. As is often my practice with books, I opened it up to a random page and started to read. Sometimes I think like a hypertext, but all the same I’m resistant to it. I have an uncanny knack for opening up any book to whatever page I need, at the time.
It was a section about nomadism and territorialism, and the way that music establishes territory. I thought of Shelley’s skylark right away, and then decided that perhaps I should at least look at the beginning. I found myself hating the book at the start, nearly as much as I loved it in the middle. There is something so counter-intuitive about rhizomes.
You see, they’re promiscuous. They’ll join with anything, anywhere. I don’t think life is like that. I don’t form associations with everything I touch, only some things. There’s a pattern to it, and it’s not rhizomatic. In case you’re not familiar with the concept (I wasn’t until this weekend) here is a nice treatment of what may be a perfect example of a rhizome, the Internet. On a certain level, yes, I’d agree. On another level, the social level, I don’t.
It was incredible to happen on this totally by chance right now. Turbulent Velvet recommended the book to me a while back, and I ordered it, but it had been sitting on the bottom of a pile before this trip. Just before I left, I read a nice essay that abuddahs memes pointed out about the shape of the universe. The article took a somewhat spiritual stance that the most prevalent cultural image is that of the tree. Deluze and Guattari seek to overthrow that dominance, by proposing the rhizome.
I don’t like it much at all as a model. I’d rather be a tree. Without constraint, there is no communication, just a jumbled mess of weeds. I can’t see it as the efficient paradigm for the future at all. As much as I love the concept of nomadism, I hate the concept of rhizomes. We all make choices, we don’t just join arbitrarily. Or maybe it’s just me, who wants to be an irreligious spiritualist, who just can’t buy into the new order.
But other than that, I really like the book so far. I like the approach. I forget who said it, but I do believe that books are machines for thinking, not books that remove the need to think. I don’t think that books are frozen conversations, but instead doors into new worlds where conversation plays a part, but isn’t the central focus.
I had something pressing, beating against my brain. Karen, my ex-wife called the night before. She had gone into the hospital to deliver her baby. She promised to call the next day, but she didn’t. Disorganized me didn’t even ask which hospital she was in.
It’s a weird situation. Because Karen and I still feel close, I knew it would make the child’s father nervous if I tried to keep too close of tabs on her. But I care, and it’s been hard to tolerate not knowing what’s going on even if my mind tells me it’s for the best. Her water broke before she felt any contractions, and when I told my mother this, I could tell that she was concerned too. My mother told me that the same thing happened when I came into the world. There was no real warning before the arduous labor commenced.
So I drove to Oklahoma, not knowing. After I got there, my mother explained a bit more about my birth. As usual, I tried to do things backwards and land on my feet in this world. It was a long and painful process to get me turned around. She didn’t tell me when I left, because she knew I would worry even more. When I got back, I still didn’t know.
I called when I got in last night, to try to talk to the child’s father. No answer. More fear. He finally called today. While the child wasn’t a breech, Karen had to have a c-section. His head was too big, 14 inches around. She’s still in the hospital, in pain. I’m going to go see her tonight, now that I know where she is. Everyone is fine and healthy, he says. But it seems so weird to be distant when your best friend is going through such trauma. But it seemed weirder not to write, to try to get stuff out of my head.
I just found out. Sorry about the surfeit of words today, but writing does help me cope with uncertainty. It’s a narrowing of possibilities, I think. You place one word down, and the list of words that can follow is narrowed. It’s a way of making things go a certain way, of controlling something in the face of uncontrollable uncertainty.
Popeye says, visit Alma. Popeye always scared me just a bit with his overgrown forearms, and I never developed a taste for spinach. That was the province of my older brother Steve, who was always looking for a Bluto to beat up on. As I headed for the Oklahoma border, I slipped the Creedence tape in the stereo and thought to myself: I’m headed into cockroach country.
It’s the gene-pool I came from. Native America they call it now; but really it was a dumping ground of dreams. Poor white trash and native tribes thrown together, with the only unified element being poverty. I have no idea how much “Indian” blood I have, but I know it’s in there. There’s a certain survival instinct, that comes from climbing out of the teeming garbage heap. Of course Oklahoma is a lot different from when my father and mother left in the late 30s, for the sunny climes of California. Fighting back the urge for a White Russian, I entered the part of the state that has changed the least.
That’s where my parents are now, just down the street from the Choctaw casino, in Pocola, Oklahoma. The name of the town is an Indian word which means “ten miles,” because it is ten miles from Ft. Smith, Arkansas. I’d say it’s about thirty miles from the Spinach Capitol of the World, Alma, Arkansas. I got into a lot of trouble when I got here for pronouncing it “all-muh” rather than “AL-MA.” It’s also about thirty miles from the site of the Worlds’ Highest Hill, in Poteau, Oklahoma. My parents sit on the border, but their roots are all on the Oklahoma side.
It’s a land of hardy people, who struggle each day to get by. Deep poverty, generations of it, living side by side. The newspapers each day relate tales that are stranger than any fiction writer could create. It’s hard for me to figure out why my parents choose to live there. Steve I can understand. He’s always been more comfortable near the bottom of the barrel. But my parents are fairly well-off, and could live anywhere they want. They used to live on 200 acres in the middle of a National Forest, but they moved closer in to be nearer to medical care as they got older. Even though they don’t suffer from poverty, I suppose they are still comfortable near it.
Poor people are easier to understand, for my family at least, I guess. They’re actually from around the Norman area originally. My father’s mother was a cook at a sorority at the University of Oklahoma in the 30s. My mother worked at a mental institution in Oklahoma City, before my father decided it was time to look for greener pastures. They were both happy to leave Oklahoma, but as they got older, Dad wanted to go back. I picked up another clue about where my predispositions come from, in a new story I heard from my mother on this trip.
She came from a huge family, about a dozen kids. All the kids had to work in the fields, to support the family. But mom told me that she never did, it just wasn’t her forte. She worked around the house, cleaning, making the meals, and taking care of her baby sister while her mother went with all the other kids out in the fields to work. Her brothers gave her a hard time about it, so they insisted that she had to hoe the corn one day. It was a hot day, and she fainted and had to be carried back to the house. She said that she was too heavy to be lifted over the fence, so she had to be pushed under it. They never asked her to work in the fields again.
She always worked, but she worked inside. She couldn’t take the sun. So that’s where I get it from! I’ve never been the nature type either. My father is a more grizzled outdoorsy type. I always feel like such a wimp next to him. He has deep lines on his face, and looks much the same as the photographs I’ve seen of Native chiefs, with deep weather-beaten features. Not me. I’m a cream-puff by comparison.
Leaving town, I see that another tribal war is in process. The Cherokee Casino has erected a billboard down the street from the Choctaws. Some folks just can’t get along.
Mom’s been reading a bunch of stuff about the civil rights movement. She explained that she missed it, and had no idea what was going on back there in the 50s and 60s. California is like another planet, and that’s the planet I grew up on too. Things are different there, but what has always struck me as odd is that the religious propaganda that I find stuffed under my windshield, in Little Rock, is mostly printed in California.
Driving back, I stopped at a Wendy’s in Clarksville.
I always think of the Monkee’s song when I pass through.
However, there is no train station in Clarksville, Arkansas.
In the bathroom, someone left me a tip.
What is it about advertising practices on urinals that fascinates me so?
The big thing I have to wonder is, what was the ladies auxiliary of Texarkana doing in a urinal in Clarksville? I suppose they must have been headed for the casino. Silly me, I had to pick it up. I'm always looking for a tip.
Then a strange imperative wells up in him: either stop writing, or write like a rat . . . If the writer is a sorcerer, it is because writing is a becoming, writing is traversed by strange becomings that are not becomings-writer, but becomings-rat, becomings-insect, becomings-wolf, etc.
Deluze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (240)
Walking with the beast
Desparate for something new, I mined an old tape case, and pulled out some music I hadn’t listened to in years. My listening habits have changed since I became more of a bibliophile. I don’t listen to music while reading like I used to. When I do listen, I tend to listen more deeply, and often repetitively. I suppose I got that habit from Slim.
Before I left on my trip, I had just received a copy of “Exile in Guyville” by Liz Phair, one of those records I didn’t pay any attention to when it first came round. I think I listened to it four times in a row, while getting the stuff together for my trip. I keep wanting to buy something new, but when I cruise the CD listings I balk at paying $18 for a CD. I tend to cruise for gems that I might have missed over the years, and buy the bargain CDs. This was a good choice, a real gem that I hadn’t heard before. Sometimes history seems so deep that it is hard to expend the energy on keeping up with the present.
My old tapes are split into three categories: live tapes of things I don’t want to risk to a car tape deck (probably about 5 or 6 hundred), a core group of around a hundred old beer-soaked and sun-bleached tapes that used to get me down the road in crazier days, and around a hundred tapes I made for archival purposes when I was living in a record store.
It wasn’t really a record store, it just had more records than many small record stores. It was the only time that I had a roommate. In a tiny ghetto apartment, Rick Hodgson paid half my rent, even though he spent most of his time with his girlfriend (now wife). He had a collection of around 2,000 records, and it sat in the same room with my collection of 1,200 or so. So I frantically taped a lot of his stuff. There was only a little overlap, though we did have many points of coincidence in our collections. He was more of a “hippie” type (though he had short hair) and I was more of a punk (though I had long hair). I never sold him on the Minutemen, but he never sold me on the Grateful Dead. It was fun for both of us to try though.
I pulled out a tape of Creedence Clearwater Revival albums, “Cosmos Factory” and “Willie and the Poor Boys” that I made from Rick’s albums, sometime in the early eighties, and a few beer soaked tapes from a little later than that from those old beat up tape cases, and hit the road.
From the moment that “Las Vegas Story” by the Gun Club started playing, I was transported back. Though I favor the Ward Dotson line-up (“Fire of Love” is one of my all-time favorite albums), it was a refreshing blast of tribal power. Music sets up territories, creates communities, and has a social function beyond its entertainment value. There is just something bestial about this music, then and now, and I was reminded just how small that community was. It was all about the tone. I never managed to sell many of my friends on this tone. They missed the point; it wasn’t about songs, lyrics, or chord structures. It was the tone.
I know a lot more about it now. Looking back, I can see that The Cramps had it; The Scientists had it; Neil Young and Crazy Horse had it; The Wipers had it. And the next forgotten gem on that tape, The Toiling Midgets “Deadbeats,” had it. So what was it?
Researching Defoe’s The Journal of the Plague Year has pointed to the power of historicity over and over. I think that has a lot to do with it. Rex, who turned me on to most of these bands, used to always say in the mid-eighties when we would listen to local schmoes pounding out their cover classics that “They have deep musical roots all the way back to 1977.” I think that’s it. What the tone I became sensitive to was the echo of a chord stretching all the way back to Robert Johnson and beyond; it was muscular, it had a power that refused to let go. Jeffrey Lee Pierce tapped into that tone, and like Johnson, he was walking with the beast. The claim to historicity gives weight and substance to any argument, and seemingly separates it from myth while it creates myths all its own.
When I heard the long versions of “Heard it through the Grapevine” and “Effigy” on that Creedence tape for the first time in 20 years or so, I realized that it was that same tone. A primal tone stretching back to the moment when humanity first began to make sense of pain through music. I resist all tendencies to abolish history, particularly that part that resonates inside me. That’s the problem with most Internet histories; they want to deny those things that ultimately, refuse to die. It’s the animal inside.
But some people just don’t hear it, and can’t hear the difference between the antiseptic studio perfection that some bands strive for, and real human tone. I’m not that interested in perfection. I’m in it for the beast. Sloppiness isn't a guarantee of it though, I still believe that the Grateful Dead definately never had it. I suspect they were just too stoned to let the beast in.
It didn't surprise me much, though it might have a surprise or two for the average reader of my blog. The dominant personality type was of course the "Romantic" or "Artist" depending on which page you look at. Uh, maybe that might explain why I spent most of my life making little grey rectangles, and then turned to become a Romanticist of sorts. However, as a thinker, well, I rate a -1. See, told you I was defective! Here's the full line-up, sorted by dominance:
Type 4: The Romantic. The intuitive, reserved type: 7
Type 7: The Generalist. The enthusiastic, productive type: 3
Type 1: The Reformer. The rational, idealistic type: 2
Type 2: The Helper. The caring nurturing type: 1
Type 5: The Thinker. The perceptive, cerebral type: -1
Type 8: The Leader. The powerful, aggressive type: -1
Type 3: The Motivator. The adaptable, success-oriented type: -2
Type 9: The Peacemaker. The easygoing, accommodating type: -4
Type 6: The Skeptic. The committed, security oriented type: -5
According to the page which offers a motivational hypothesis for my "type," fantasy is dangerous for me. I could have told them that. I indulge in it all too often, and it usually turns into a negative thing. But that doesn't deter me much. Though I may appear agonistic from time to time, that agonisim is not based in skepticism. That, I think, would surprise a few folks. I'm about as far from being a skeptic as there is. At school, they tell me I'm a natural scholar. But I have my doubts, I thought scholars were supposed to be thinkers!
I’ve been thinking about the “medium” of hypertext, the resistance it causes in me, and the reasons why. I suppose it’s about will. Mine burns pretty brightly, barbequing things up, and serving them up in slices in this liquid space. A crafty person might even be able to construct a partial image of me, based on what I put in my little space.
But this is a bubble at best, a place I do believe I own, contrary to Weinberger’s assertions that “Web space is the opposite of a container,” and that it is “a place we can enter, wander, and get lost in, but cannot own.” I beg to differ. I pay the rent, and I own what I put here, and am free to move at any time. It is a container, a grab-bag of texts and images which I assemble to amuse my overactive will. Presentation concerns me greatly; it’s the “artist” in me, who seeks to control not just the content, but the way that content is presented. He’s right though, Web space makes that sort of thinking nearly untenable.
I’ve had to surrender myself to the fact that people will surf into here with out-of-date browsers and see my neatly aligned content explode into a garble of semantic rubbish. Someone might cage me in a frame, or be unable to view in the relatively nominal screen resolution that I set things up for, and once again I’m baked. For the longest time, I wondered about ways around this. Then I just decided to write instead, and live by the common disclaimer “This site best viewed on my monitor” though I would hope that people might call ahead before they stop by.
Weinberger is right to assert that hypertext, by its nature, is a public phenomenon. It relies on the free access to public linking. Once you put your stuff on the web, you open yourself up to appropriation, and no amount of legislation or clever software tricks will stamp it out entirely. If you can see it, you can steal it. While I’m willing to surrender the content I provide to an audience, I can’t quit believing that I should have some control over its presentation.
However, the most well-done statement in the “Space” chapter of Small Pieces Loosely Joined is its conclusion:
What holds the Web together is not a carpet of rock but the world's collective passion.
Should I surrender my passion for presentation? Reviewing a history of Rhetoric, I was reminded that one of the striking changes which occurred in the 18th century was the complete separation of inventio from the realm of rhetoric, leaving nothing but the hollow shell of arrangement behind. The reason for this was the bifurcation of the emotions and reason, and science from passion. It dawned on me that this is the same thinking that exists behind CSS and the upcoming semantic web.
Don’t get me wrong. I think CSS and the extensions that XML may eventually provide are a good thing. But there is something just so fundamentally, well, logical about it. This isn’t a move engineered by passion, but by logic. That’s the reasoning that fueled the disembowelment of rhetoric in the 18th century. Invention, or creating new ideas, was thought to be the province of logic, not the emotions. Arrangement, on the other hand, needed to deal specifically with the emotional appeals. The passions were neatly systemized by logic, and thought to be their slave.
Content rules, presentation is an afterthought. Not for most artists I’ve known. Artists create spaces as well as scientists; they just want more control.
I could turn each page into a graphic to get around the problem, but I doubt I’ll do that. I could lock them up in a proprietary format like Flash. But instead, I just live with it. If it looks like shit, it’s because of my problems coping with this open environment. It may be shit, but at least it’s mine.
Hypertext does force a huge rethinking of every creative enterprise. I generate it in blocks, with the aid of software. But they’re my blocks, at least the ones that rest in my domain. Using them effectively is a major challenge; I’m not ready to surrender control of how they are put together inside my own place on the web. But it is certain that they are indeed disemboweled, barbequed, and served up on a variety of platforms around the web.
Looking at my artfully constructed diagram a few minutes later, I realize I got it a little wrong. It's easy to locate Bakersfield; the thin ribbon of the grapevine connecting it with LA is easy to spot by satellite. I put my star on Tulsa, Oklahoma by mistake. I'm actually a few dots lower and to the right. The final "e" in "here" must be above Memphis, and Little Rock would be somewhere below the "he". It's perfectly understandable though; consciousness doesn't translate well to map space.
There is a lot to like in Chapter 2, “Space” of Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger. However, I find myself locked in refutatio. Traditional space is not a container. Maybe it’s because I’ve moved closer to the middle of the North American Continent, and spent time traveling in the deserts and open spaces of this mass of land, standing in places where optical law takes over before the planet ends. I do not think of space as finite, enclosed, containing much of anything except what my senses can take in at a moment. Space doesn’t end in the “real” world. Our senses mediate space to construct a closure which is largely an illusion.
Ah, but this is the distinction between “measured space” and “lived space” which Weinberger makes in his book. Once again, I don’t see this as a phenomena unique to the Internet. When I think of California, where I spent most of my life, I do not think of the 1678.26 miles which Mapquest tells me separates my current location from my memories. They are right here, right now. The locations in between are “sites” in my memory which vary in detail dependant on the amount of experience collected there. Perhaps “measured space” is not nearly so crucial to our perception of the “real” world as he implies. We always experience space and time through a mediating agent, be it memory or sense. With this distinction in mind, it seems as if the Internet is closer to the space of memory than the space of sense, at least the sense of space that we feel when enclosed. But this is only a subset of the total phenomena of “real” space.
This gets me where I was going. I was amused by another one of those definitional stasis things today. Just a reminder, for those who haven’t followed my train of thought lately, I’m using stasis in the Greek sense [from the OED]:
a. Gr. standing, station, stoppage, f. - to stand.Whenever a word gets twisted so far from its original meaning as this, it gives me pause.
The argument is:
Let's summarize the Top Three Reasons Why the Web Isn't a Medium.Wait a minute. Okay, so using this logic, television isn’t a medium. We surf the channels. We stop at programs. We enter into the dramas and comedies already in progress. Books aren’t a medium. Because they are composed of content, not the dead tree pulp that composes them. How ridiculous can you get?
1. A medium is something we send messages through whereas our talk of the Web indicates that we move through the Web - we go places, we surf, we enter sites.
2. When you call it a medium, the broadcast boys get erections. (And the broadcast girls get more head lumps from jumping up against the glass ceiling.)
3. The Web is "content" - us writing stuff to and for another another - not the transmission medium.
So, discussing media means that we must exclude anything composed primarily of content? Uh, it seems to me that the media, or mediating agents of that content are as important as the content itself. To fall back on McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” or better still, “The Medium is the Massage.” There is a lot of stroking going on about how different the Internet “non-medium” is. To make this twist in definition means going to the fourth definition of medium in the OED:
4. a. Any intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses: applied, e.g., to the air, the ether, or any substance considered with regard to its properties as a vehicle of light or sound.The intervening substance of the Internet does indeed exist; electrons through wires, and phosphors on screens. The transmission of brainwaves from site authors to readers does not occur instantaneously (just yet, at least) and hence the proclamation in the “Space” chapter that normal spatial concepts don’t apply to the web seems a bit myopic. It just depends on which “normal” you’re talking about.
I think that the usage of the word medium is too good to lose, particularly in the second subset of this meaning:
b. The application of the word in sense 4 to the air, ether, etc. has given rise to the new sense: Pervading or enveloping substance; the substance or ‘element’ in which an organism lives; hence fig. one's environment, conditions of life.The Internet represents a new environment, to be sure, even if its a purely figurative one. I don’t believe that we can overthrow the definition, different from the ones previously listed, which I believe Weinberger is really attacking:
5. a. An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television, etc., as vehicles of mass communication.We “visit sites” through the medium of the Internet. It is an intermediate agency, a non-hierarchal one to be sure, but still it is an instrument, not something new. Why throw out a perfectly good definition when it exists to help us make sense of the road we're on?
The Internet is a vehicle, through which we navigate a space that is much closer to the space of mind than the space of roadmaps. Space is different here, yes. But not unique. I’m not buying that yet.
I’m still working with that rural pen, and staining the water clear.
Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee
On a cloud I saw a child.
And he laughing said to me.
Pipe a song about a Lamb;
So I piped with merry chear,
Piper pipe that song again--
So I piped, he wept to hear.
Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe
Sing thy songs of happy chear,
So I sung the same again
While he wept with joy to hear
Piper sit thee down and write
In a book that all may read--
So he vanish'd from my sight.
And I pluck'd a hollow reed.
And I made a rural pen,
And I stain'd the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear
William Blake, Introduction to The Songs of Innocence
Searching the web a while back, I noted a brilliant site containing many poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
But one poem was sadly lacking: "A Ramble in St. James Park". So, I decided to add it to the fine works of literature available on the net. It's a bit long for the front page, and a bit saucy. Please refrain from clicking the more link, if strong language and sexual content offends you.
I think if poetry like this was taught in school, there would be greater interest in poetry.
Caving in under a dreadful headache, I started looking at some old bookmarks: primitivism.com
How's that for an oxmoronic site name? I suppose they can't all be as accurate as knobsandknockers. Checking out the new additions, I found a rumination by Bob Black about —ism vs. —archy. You've just got to love it.
My considered judgment, after years of scrutiny of, and sometimes harrowing activity in the anarchist milieu, is that anarchists are a main reason - I suspect, a sufficient reason - why anarchy remains an epithet without a prayer of a chance to be realized. Most anarchists are, frankly, incapable of living in an autonomous cooperative manner. A lot of them aren't very bright.
Putting on my forensic rhetorician's hat, I've got to make a call for definitional stasis. The Cambridge Dictionary defines anarchy as "lack of organization and control," so wouldn't his frustration mean that anarchy is what it says it is? Isn't operating in a "cooperative manner" acting with organization and control? At the very least, it implies social control. I do believe that there is such a thing as organized autonomy, weblogs are a great example of that. People develop social networks on there own, choosing how much of there time they wish to dedicate to being "good citizens" within their milieu. It's a sort of self-organizing principle, completely at odds with any notion of anarchy.
I've got to agree with his last statement. Anarchists generally aren't very bright. Declaring an —ism the enemy puts the writer in very good company, though, when it comes to standing in the bushes with the not so bright.
One of my much needed papers is done. And it’s here, too, if you’re interested.
Standing on Ceremony is 2,000 words or so on the subject of Aristotle’s “classes of rhetoric” as applied to the Internet environment. Some of it will be a bit basic for the typical web reader, and a bit deep in classical rhetoric, however through the miracles of hypertext all the key rhetorical terms are hyperlinked to explanatory references. The web-conversation specific stuff is also linked for the benefit of my professor, who would not be familiar with ongoing blog conversations. I think it worked out pretty well.
Of course, comments, suggestions, and/or bricks and tomatoes are welcome.
There’s just something, well, seminal about that affix. So much for an open, tolerant society. We’ve declared war on a belief. It wouldn’t bother me as much if it was a war on a behavior; obviously some behaviors damage the fabric of society. To keep it stitched together, society just can’t tolerate certain types of behavior. Is thinking about a sin, a sin? I side with Milton on that one. I don’t think so.
When we make nouns of thoughts, we tread on dangerous ground. Just what is the referent? This rapidly degenerates into surrealism. When these abstractions become as real to us as a chair or a table, we have truly entered the twilite zone.
It’s sticky stuff. Decisions must be made. Stay in or pull out? A thick problem, indeed. I prefer to stay in, as long as the blood flows in a pleasant direction. That’s the problem— it sometimes doesn’t.
Arguments are like that. They don’t always end up in pleasant places. I think it has to do with rigidity. Enough friction, and things liquefy. It’s a dissolution of identity, a scary thing for those who prefer rigidity, comfort, and closure within their own dimensions. But this takes discipline, particularly when it comes to staying within one’s own discipline.
I suppose that’s why I’m currently hanging out in the “no-discipline dicipline.” Rhetoricians are more fun at parties, they can talk to anyone. Except for one fringe group, “the theory thugs,” that is: a group which I find myself hanging out with quite often. It’s a specialized vocabulary, to be sure, but it’s fun once you learn what all the big words mean. I only hate it when people use them gratuitously. Used correctly, they are an excellent shorthand for really big concepts. When pages are filled with these words, you’ve got to study them for a long time. More bang for the buck, so to speak. Make that glorious orgy of the text take a little longer. . .
But sometimes it seems, well, penile. I mean how many variations of “sem” can there be? Semiotics and semiosis, terms beating like semaphore against the brow of those lesser mortals that can’t penetrate the warm cave of scholarly humanity. It seems rather frustrating in the end. But when it works, it results in the glorious birth of an —ism. But some —isms can’t be tolerated. Careful with the verbs you nominalize. You might have war declared on you, if you can’t adequately defend your system.
Then it becomes the province of rhetoric. I like the way that Aristotle explained it:
The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate on without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning.So rhetoric has a duty, a mission as it were, to make complex decision making simpler. For everyone, not just for the chosen few that can interpret the shorthand. I’m attracted to it, being a hopeless generalist.
The answers to understanding? Perhaps not. Just a tool to decide what’s probable, and improbable. I’ll leave the hard science to the anthropologists. Though anthropology is soft by definition, with blurry lines between several disciplines including linguistics, psychology, etc., it appeals to the generalist in me. Whatever road takes you there, is what I say. As long as we can make it a pleasant trip.
I am, above all else, easily amused. When I found the definition of nosemosis on a pest-control web site, I just rolled: “infection with micro-sporidia of the genus nosema.” Yes, I suspect that it’s just that damn language virus coming round again.
I don’t know when exactly I picked up the habit of reading over a dozen books at once, but it’s served me well. There’s usually so much floating around my snow-globe of a head that I can’t get it to settle down into a recognizable pattern. I read fast, at least twice the rate of most of my fellow teachers; but I also read slow, often spending hours on a handful of pages that pique my interest.
A few further comments on Weinberger’s book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined. The first chapter, “A New World” bothered me because of the way that it began: the question of people playing “dress-up” on the web. People do that in real life too, probably with the same frequency, but not with the same thoroughness. Ever listen to people talk about fishing? Their latest sexual conquest? People love to lie. This is hardly news. The problem with web “identities” is that they are just like the problems liars face in the real world. It’s nearly impossible to be consistent, so people have to rotate their lies often. I was so relieved when I found that he argued that this sort of behavior was the exception and not the rule. Whew.
The e-bay example was another restatement of a conventional behavior. I sold electronics for a long time in another life. People come into a store, not knowing much about what they’re buying. They read brochures, figure out the buzzwords, ask friends for advice, but most of all— they hop from store to store to examine different pitches about what they should buy. Because it takes so much effort, they usually don’t persist at it for long. I think the “gaming” aspect of auction-bidding is perhaps a bigger attraction than the voluntary learning involved. A person wants to be good at the game, so they are more likely to spend time figuring out the rules. A good salesman will reinforce the insecurity of a customer who is buying outside their realm of expertise by reinforcing what they know, and building on it so that they are confident in their purchase. That’s a bit of a game too. Make the customer feel “in-charge.” Next...
The central content of the chapter— the shifting line between public and private, and the question of the sociability of the web— are better directions to go. Identities are constructed by irony and indirection is not entirely new to the web, but it is certainly an amplified aspect. That the level of social behavior stimulated this way is open to dissention is also a good way of addressing the issues behind it all. In most ways, the issues surrounding this “new world” are central to our perception of democracy, and the place of the individual in the world.
Are we, in Thomas Carlyle’s words, shooting Niagara? Is the avalanche of decentralization brought about by the web the core of the ultimate in democracy? Carlyle would have thought it a bad thing, going over a high precipice in a rather flimsy barrel. But then, as he also quite progressively argued, perhaps it’s time to exchange these rags of mock-democracy, or more accurately, oligarchy, for a truer suit of clothes? The political implications of this “new world” are staggering.
And politics begins with the social impulse. What I think is key is the lack of reliance on hierarchy in the formation of this new socialization, facilitated by the very structure of the Internet itself: a liquid structure. I think that it may be bringing out changes much like those traced by Zigmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity. Internet junkies may be the new nomads.
Throughout the solid stage of the modern era, nomadic habits remained out of favor. Citizenship went hand in hand with settlement, and the absence of a “fixed address” and “statelessness” meant exclusion from the law-abiding and law-protected community and more often than not brought the culprits legal discrimination, if not active prosecution.
Napster, anyone? However, the fluid stage of culture, according to Bauman (page 13, for those who care) brings a return to nomadism.
We are witnessing the revenge of nomadalism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics.
Multi-national corporations anyone? Perhaps the cockroaches of the Internet will overrun them as the borders open, and we can just say no to Starbucks. Or maybe not. Their coffee does taste pretty good.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems with it. Sometimes it seems like my education has made everything more complicated and problematic than it was before. On the surface, his summary of thirty years of critical theory (nicely done!) ends in a gross oversimplification:
The most basic form of communication that human beings use is face to face linguistically mediated interaction. It's what we do most of the time. Its what we learn to do first. Its what we do. It should serve as the paradigm for all meaningful activityI’ve got to reflect on this, based on what I’ve been exploring in the work of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others.
Conversations are not moving books, books are frozen conversations. In order to understand blogs, or the internet, or any other cultural phenomenon we need to take as our starting point the way it does or does not resemble face to face conversation. This provides a new viewpoint, one that I think does real work. How exactly? Well, I'll let you know when I figure it out...
This summary sounds good, except...
Analyzing conversations does not explain the process of making meaning, it complicates it. HP Grice’s theories regarding implicature demonstrate that humans literally imply meanings out of thin air— what is being expressed in a conversation is often far outside the words that are spoken, the expressions used, etc. On a very deep level, it’s magic that we can communicate at all this way. But the real danger of his statement is in the second paragraph: “Conversations are not moving books, books are frozen conversations.”
Not even close to the truth. Havelock’s work has demonstrated almost conclusively that societies which use the written word think entirely differently than oral cultures. There is an incredible shift brought about through the development of literate culture. A gross example is this: oral cultures do not use subordination. Every thing related in oral narratives is paratactic in nature, chained together by conjunctions and causal relations. It is a world filled with agents and actions, long on example and short on abstraction. The introduction of written language causes a shift into the hypotactic, subordinate constructions which often convey things which have no clear agents, and less direct action. This influences the structure of conversation, not just the written words themselves. Memory becomes less important, and the ability to deal with complex abstractions more important.
Written works become increasingly distant to conversation, because they can. Philosophy enters the picture, because determining the veracity of written and spoken language becomes important in the realm of abstraction. Words refer not just to agents and actions, but other words. They become a thing in and of themselves, away from the day to day life of face to face interaction. The implicatures become deep and more complex.
Alex is right to suggest that conversation is the right place to start; however, the road from there becomes more complex than he implies. Technology shifts consciousness. The introduction of the printing press caused a crisis of faith unlike anything we have known since. The period I’m looking at now, the 17th century, introduced the battle between the written word and science. This shifted thinking again. I suspect the new technologies such as the Internet represent a shift which is of the same order of magnitude. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Conversation starts it, but conversation also changes itself based on the technology which proliferates it. It’s not just a phenomenon of culture, but also a phenomenon of consciousness. Books are not frozen conversations: they represent an entirely new mode of thinking. It remains to be seen whether the same can be said of the Internet. I'm still quite conservative about that. But there is no arguing that this change is a big one.
Utopian enthusiasm is almost always counterbalanced by the rise of healthy skepticism. Often, things tip over so far that they never spring back. Occasionally, the emergent dialogue acts to refine the utopian ideals into a more workable form.
I’d much rather read well thought out pieces on the web like Katherine Parrish’s not everybody’s autobiography rather than the current number two on blogdex, backwash to the effect of “Starbucks can kiss my ass” (a direct quote from one of the comments). But I digress.
What I really wanted to do was write a little research saga. Readers who have been following me for a while might remember that I’m working on a paper on Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year. The genesis of the thing was getting pissed off at an article. That’s where I often start. It really gets to me when supposedly brilliant people get things wrong. The article which got my goat was Anne Hunsaker Hawkins’ “Pathography and Enabling Myths.”
Hawkins defines pathography as “autobiographies and biographies about illness.” She claims:
Perhaps what is most striking about this genre is that it seems a contemporary phenomenon. In previous eras, autobiographical accounts of sickness are woven into a journal or diary; almost never does illness constitute the sole focus of the work.She dutifully footnotes this statement with a reference to Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Occasions (about typhus), but fails to mention that this assertion is so full of holes as to be laughable. I’ll spare listing all of the contradictions I can think of off the top of my head, and go on to the exception to her rule which I think can answer a lot of questions: Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, published in 1722. Just what constitutes a true pathography? Like the oversimplification of the changes wrought by the Internet, the oversimplification of this term is problematic.
Hawkins proposes, in what is ultimately a great article (even with the error), that pathography fills the gap between case study and the real human experience of disease. Currently, the term is a popular one. I did a search on WilsonWeb to see just where it started. The earliest reference there was 1988, where the author of an article in Newsweek, “The ‘Pathography’ Perplex,” asserted:
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates recently coined the word “pathography” to describe a subspecies of biography that she believes is overly concerned with “dysfunction and disaster.”Ah ha! The smoking gun. Or is it?
Proquest turned up another article by Hawkins, “Culture and Medicine: Pathography: Patient Narratives of Illness.” It was from 99, and it seems to narrow the definition away from biography and into autobiography. That would rule out Defoe, but the article doesn’t really place that limit on the term, going on to identify “autopathography” as a subgenre. I’m still safe with my assertion that Defoe fits within that genre. On to Lexis-Nexis.
Joyce Carol Oates does not claim to invent the term, only that the term is useful. In a 1988 article in the New York Times, she describes it as a subset of biography, “a new subspecies of the genre which the name “pathography” might be usefully be given: hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” In her usage, it’s a derogatory term, unlike Hawkin’s championing it as a useful genre which fills a real need.
Tons of popular articles with the term follow Oates’ usage in the five years that follow. But was this the real coinage of the term? Once again, I turned to the OED for answers.
The OED lists pathography as:
a. The, or a, description of a disease (Dunglinson Med. Lex. 1853). b. The, or a, study of the life and character of an individual or community as influenced by a disease.Once again, the “new” is not so new. This stuff pisses me off these days. This whole excursion took less than an hour. Why don’t people qualify their assertions more carefully?
Hence, pathographical a., pertaining to pathography (Mayne Expos. Lex. 1857); pathographer, one who writes a pathography.
There was another article I read recently that asserted that “testimony” was uniquely important in the twentieth century (from an anthology of Holocaust narratives). Uh, what about the Greeks? They wrote volumes on the subject. Determining the veracity of testimony, and it’s assertion of evidence, has been a preoccupation of humanity since the dawn of recorded history. I hate shoddy scholarship. I wish more history was required of scholars before they opened up their mouths!
However, taking McKeon’s approach to the novel as a model, it seems important to figure out why pathography is a useful term for a genre. It fills a need, a need that is literally exploding off the bookshelves right now.
I hadn’t cruised blogdex in a while, so I had a look tonight. The end is near. Michael Moore is a gaseous windbag. Lots of links to the big, reliable [sic] media centers like FoxNews and Wired. No links for me, thank you.
Channeling the ghost of Thomas Carlyle, I have grave doubts about these link-lumping strategies. What does it really say? The mass of the public, bloggers included, are idiots? Now there’s a news-flash. So much for my positive feelings about the Internet tonight. I made it to #128 without finding a single item of interest to me. I suppose I’ll stay in my closed social circle, and read them instead because they say far more interesting stuff. Interesting to me, at any rate. I’d rather read about Shauny’s weekend, or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which coincidentally was one of those books my father forced me to read before he would even talk to me, or the weather in New Jersey than any of the crap people are linking to at this hour.
Content industry taking over the web? Taken from the standpoint of popular trend, I suppose so. However, looked at from the perspective of a surfer who seldom visits the “content industry” unless somebody else I trust links to it, I doubt it. I like people. That’s why I’m here, and vocal. I work out stuff in my head as I go. I forgot there were so many conservative warmongers out there. I hadn’t looked for a long while. I like to hang with the good people.
Somewhere around #78 was a piece on Kuro[something, I can never get these fucked-up web spellings right] about the end of the Internet. Corporations will end the free exchange of information over the Internet. Just like the phone company prevents conspiracies conducted over the phone, and dirty phone calls. Give me a break. There’s something happing here, and what it is... well, I’m with Weinberger, I’d like to figure out what it is.
One thing is certain though. The pattern of rhetoric practiced since the dawn of time is largely agonistic. We provoke confrontations, arguments, and such. We debate our positions, like combatants in an arena. There’s no rosy and free utopia waiting around the corner, though we always want one. In order to institute change, it will mean the discovery of new sorts of rhetoric. One can adopt the utopian vision, and work toward it, tempered with the sort of healthy skepticism that Turbulent Velvet has expressed, or people can surrender their space to the model of the “content industry.”
Not here, not tonight. Perhaps it’s too much wine, but I’m feeling particularly angry at finding so little beyond my circle of “friends” to enjoy. No links to the content industry from me.
I finally got around to going outside and checking my mailbox. Dave Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined was there. Another thing to add to my already massive reading list. But I couldn’t help but read the preface right away.
Just some quick notes to self. Though he aligns himself with a mode of thinking I resist (social constructivism), I agree with his hope for the web as infrastructure:
If a new infrastructure comes along that allows us to connect with everyone else on the planet and to invent new types of connections, this is big news indeed.I remain cautious about proclaiming that the connections forged in this medium are “new types,” however. I agree with his emphasis on the acceleration and scale of the thing though. It places an even greater emphasis on understanding the modes and types of communication (connections).
I am also querulous of the assertion that “the facts of nature drop out of the web.” Weinberger’s further assertion that “we can see reflected in the Web just how much of our sociality is due not to the nature of the real world but to the nature of ourselves” is at odds with his previously declared stance that identity is socially constructed, because it assumes an individual “self” outside the boundaries of normal, real world social conditioning. It’s a thorny line to dance. I’ll be interested in seeing him try to make the connection. He’s right to assert that “every social act implicitly conforms itself to the geographic and material facts of the real world.” However, do we leave these things behind when we enter web world? I don’t think so. I think the web is a great leveler, where some conventions are left behind perhaps, but not all. We’re all looking for affirmation, even in [insert web spatial metaphor here].
As Weinberger says, “we care about ourselves and the world we share with others.” This means that social conventions may shift and change, but they still, to me at least, are grounded in fundamental human behaviors. I agree with him that the web gives us great opportunities to rethink those behaviors and our assumptions about them. I look forward to reading the rest of the book, but I really must get back to Defoe for now. I suspect that I’ll be chewing on Small Pieces in small pieces; every quote in this entry came from pages xi-xii. I think the book deserves to be read carefully; I’m sure it will be one hell of an epistemic dance.
I think it was 94 or so when I met Chris Sullivan. He was doing a show in Bakersfield that had an odd cross-section of work. Part of it was photographs of mattresses.
He began finding them on the streets of San Francisco, and dragging them back to his studio. He said it was amazing that it took him so long to figure out that he could just cut off the fabric cover, without dragging the whole beast back with him.
Long before William Wegman hit it big with his photographs of his dogs, Chris was doing much the same thing. He stopped, because though he did it first, he didn't want to be thought of as a Wegman imitator. Art is like that. Once somebody else starts doing the same thing as you, what's the point?
Chris told me that when he got to the San Francisco Art Institute, the influence of Ansel Adams was still strong. He knew that he couldn't compete on the "fine print" battleground, so he had to find something else to do. I'm glad. I think Ansel Adams is the most horribly overrated photographer of the twentieth century.
Chris had his staged tableaus, similar to Wegman. He had the mattress photos, photos of tumbleweeds and oil drums in a Duane Michaels sort of style, and he also had some interesting series done with the aid of a photo booth in his basement apartment. He had photo-strips of himself after waking up, after smoking a joint, etc. Just good clean experimental fun. But by far, my favorite was his "Journal of the Public Domain," a series of Xeroxes and artifacts found on the streets. He just displayed the objects, rather than photographs of them.
What we have called “belonging” is nothing other than the adherence to this historical lived experience, what Hegel calls the “substance” of moral life. The “lived experience” of phenomenology corresponds, on the side of hermeneutics, to the consciousness exposed to historical efficacy. Hence, hermeneutical distanciation is to belonging as, in phenomenology, the epoché is to lived experience. Hermeneutics similarly begins when, not content to belong to transmitted tradition, we interrupt the relation of belonging in order to signify it.
I took a detour. That happens to me a lot. It brought back a memory. I remember when I first started studying literature. My point of entry was William Blake. Growing up, he seemed so dense, so impenetrable, and yet so compelling. I wanted to understand what he was on about. I remember well the feeling of drowning, positioning myself at the genesis of the Romantic period in literature. I commented to the Medievalist on campus, after having read “The Wanderer” just how lost I felt. It seemed like there was an ocean of literature stretching both directions from the period that interested me, and I didn’t know what to do, other than jump in and see if I could swim. She answered that this was all that any of us can do.
I thought about how that relates to where I find myself now. I can’t buy goal oriented models for a very simple reason. Things never start at the beginning, and they only “end” when we insist on a false sense of historical closure. It’s a waste of time, things just don’t work that way. We always are swept up, somewhere in the middle, and in order to find out where we are we have to stop, imply a false closure, and fix our relation to the moment. But then the moment becomes lost, as we find ourselves engulfed in yet another sea of meaning.
I started reading From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II by Paul Ricoeur. I’m a philosophical neophyte. Sure, I’ve dug into a few— Locke, Kant, Plato, Aristotle, etc., but only as they relate to very specific issues. I’m still struggling with that big picture of philosophical history the same way I struggled with literary history. But I’m starting to swim a little. Tentative strokes, mind you, but strokes nonetheless. I’m drawn to Habermas, Gadamer, Ricoeur, etc., rather than the rest of the crowd. But I’m wandering in the desert, trying to make sense of it.
I’m drawn to this concept of distanciation. It makes me think about the problems that a writer has when they think too much about their audience, and reminds me of what I thought of as my task as a documentary photographer. You can’t make sense of things if you are too close. There has to be some distance involved. Distance seems imperative in this process of making meaning. But distance is the hardest quality to achieve, when you find yourself thrust in the middle of an ocean of possibilities.
I was continuing my journey through McKeon’s Origin of the English Novel when I stumbled on an interesting thing. Defoe evidently in one of his works made the argument that romance was descended from the word Roman, because the Romans were believers in myth and superstition, hence the exaggerations of romance could be traced to them. Of course, McKeon notes that this is a false etymology. It dawned on me that in one of the survey courses I took, a professor (a Modernist) claimed much the same thing.
So, what’s the real story? Where did romance come from? It seems that according to the OED, the answer is precisely the opposite. Romance was a term that was used to separate writing in the vulgate tongue rather than Latin, and languages like French, Spanish, etc. Of course, the exaggerated tales of romance had their origins in those languages, and hence the label for that type of literature. So, romance is not Roman, it's vulgar.
While fishing for this bit, I stumbled on some usages of the term that were new to me.
b. Similative, as romance-like adv.; and instrumental, as romance-empurpledRomance-empurpled? I suspect that term must have fallen from use around the same time that phallic statuary became less than commonplace. I suppose you could call that an instrumental modifier. I was also quite taken by this list of 19th century variants:
romancealist, a writer of romances.I think the world needs more romancelets.
romancean a., pertaining to the period of old romances.
romanceful a., full of romance; romantic.
romanceishness, tendency towards what is romantic.
romanceless a., unromantic.
romancelet, a short romance.
The Journal of Mundane Behavior hits another nerve. The current issue is about mundane sex:
Why might "mundane sex" be perceived as funny? If I said, "mundane eating" or "mundane sleeping" no one would chuckle. Eating, sleeping, and sex are routine, ordinary dimensions of our lives. The laughter may betray a certain discomfort that many of us feel about public discussions of sex particularly when one's sex life could be interpreted as ordinary, routine, or worse, boring. Nonetheless, mundane sex speaks to the "truth" of our everyday experiences. Some of us are too tired to have sex or we go through the motions. The novelty and lust have been replaced by: "Can we do it before 10 pm?" Do I have to take my socks off?" "Can I just lay here while you do the work?"The introduction makes the somewhat bold claim that perhaps the male orgasm is irrelevant, and then the articles plumb the depths of pressing issues such as Clarissa Smith’s 'They're ordinary people, not Aliens from the Planet Sex!': the mundane excitements of pornography for women. I’ll limit myself to one more excerpt. Someone’s got to keep up on this stuff since Wood s lot is on vacation!
Jane has no problem with explicitness, as such, so long as it is not 'silly, dirty and childish'. Certainly this could be taken as evidence that she invests heavily in the notion of women's sexuality being 'cleaner' and more 'sensitive' than men's, of women's sexuality embodied in a romantic ideal. However, Jane wants more than that:Sounds reasonable to me.I think what shouldn't be banned is male erections, why can't we see hard ons? I don't think there's any reason why we shouldn't see hard ons - what are we all gonna do? Faint? Oh my god, there's a big dick and it's hard! That's ridiculous, I think that should not be banned.
I tried to set up some categories for my blog, but for the most part I failed. Taxonomy is difficult, when all subjects meld close to my heart. Will Richardson picked up on a thread from the free radical on this very topic.
I struggle with the same issue, because many times there are things of a more personal nature that I would like to get down in my space. Problem is I don’t know if it’s “appropriate” for my “audience”, and I don’t really know how much I want to share publicly. I put in a picture of the kids last week and felt kind of unsure about it. Yet, I do feel motivated by the idea that people are reading what I write. So my “professional” topics elbow out the “personal” ones, since I feel some strange sense of duty to it and to “them”. Weird. But it helps me understand what it might/must be like for my students too.I intentionally refrained from giving out my web log address to my students. My outlook, writing style, and other perspectives are already strongly evidenced by my selection of material I provide for the class. The last thing I want is for my students to write like me.
Of course, some enterprising students have found my blog, and that’s okay too. I am a person first, and a teacher second. When academics stumble on my blog and e-mail me, sometimes it makes me think that I should provide a more in depth documentation for the stuff I write. Like Will says, there’s a sort of sense of duty to the whole enterprise. But I also feel a duty to be entertaining from time to time; I don’t think these desires are necessarily contrary. When I’ve talked about these issues in the past, the small group of readers of this site seems to agree with me. I want to keep all the parts of me together, rather than ripping them apart.
But does the sense of duty to audience cause a frustration regarding emotional outbursts? Damn right it does. However, sometimes frustration can be a powerful tool. I was watching A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy this afternoon and I heard a relevant line:
Because of our problems in the bedroom, I’ve learned to fly.If anyone wonders about a suitable reason for the massive outburst of verbal diarrhea around this place, it’s as good an explanation as any. Frustration works. It seems like the more frustrated I get, the smarter people seem to think I am. It's the conservation of energy. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it merely changes form. Even a casual reader might surmise I’m not low in the energy department. After writing this, I was reminded of a poignant fact by Woody Allen:
Sex alleviates tension. Love causes it.
As I drove to teach my 12pm class, I turned the corner on University Avenue to huge plumes of flame and smoke. It was far enough away that I couldn’t tell what it was. Then it dawned on me. It looked very close to the abortion clinic. I was sure that had to be it, as I cut across the median like everyone else to try to find an alternate route. I took a quick trip through Boyle Park, and made it to class just on time. I’m glad I’m in the habit of leaving early. Coming home a little over an hour later, I decided I’d risk University again so I could see what it was. As I drew nearer, I just kept thinking— that had to be it. There are protesters out front each day, and I was sure some wacko did the deed.
Imagine my surprise when the flaming wreckage turned out to be “Catfish City.” I suppose I could attribute this act of terrorism to PETA, but somehow I just felt a little silly at my conclusion jumping. However, the locations aren’t that far apart. You could easily stuff yourself with hush-puppies and catfish while a friend was getting an abortion; it’s a short walk. However, I reminded myself as I passed that if they torch the place, the “right to life” center will also burn because it’s next door to the clinic.
Silly me. When I got home I checked my e-mail to find a note from my website host:
We would like to inform you that on the 21st of march from 12:00 GMT you may experience some servcie interuptions. This is due to the instalation of a new connection in to our data centre by Easynet. This new connnection is part of our on going developmet strategy to enhance the qulaity of the service you have come to expect from us. As a result you may find your site will be unavailable in certain parts of the world for period of no greater than 12-24 hours.I feel fairly confident in the conclusion that my host is staffed with marginally literate common people. This would explain the qu-laity of my service. Of course I’ll be waiting, in anti-capation, for further developmets. What's a little disruption of servcie?
We thank you in anticapation of your co-operation.
Yes, I’m definitely anti- capitation. I don’t want to pay any more taxes on my already meager income.
I heard this true fact on the weather channel as a description why things are just soaking wet around here lately. It seems that hot air from the gulf coast has collided with colder northern air, and climbed creating turbulence, thunderstorms, and a generally crappy tone to the weather. I was thinking about that yesterday, as Mike Sanders proposed:
The most accepted definition of professional is getting paid to do something, whether it be writing, journalism or sports. But as with most things the line gets fuzzy at the edges.It’s only natural that someone would seek to support themselves using the skills that they have, but I’ve always had a natural disdain for the term “professional” because of the way that this economic motive colors things. “Professional photographer” usually means creating advertising propaganda, taking pictures of babies or weddings, staging portraits of those affluent enough to pay for the service, etc. This contrasts with the amateur, who does it for the sheer love of pictures. When people called me a professional, I usually took it as an insult.
So I began to wonder about the genesis of this term, and the negative turbulence that it creates in me. I took a quick glance at my Shorter Oxford this morning and noted that the opposition of professional to amateur is a late 19th century one, so it’s not always been there. Mike asked a very good question:
Is getting paid the most relevant definition of professional? Why is that? Will it change in the age of the Internet?I decided to take advantage of my new at-home access to the full OED online to see if I could find other possibilities for the term. The oldest definition was this:
A. adj. I. 1. Pertaining to or marking entrance into a religious order. Obs. rare.Makes it sound kind of cultish, now doesn’t it? But it preserves the fervor which we commonly apply to the term, without the negative opposition to amateur, because who would enter a religious order without some love for it? Yeah, I know some skeptics would argue otherwise. The clergy was indeed a way of supporting oneself for long periods in history, so perhaps this doesn’t entirely remove the stigma of filthy lucre. There is a certain reticence beneath some of the examples cited in the second definition:
c1420 St. Etheldred 797 in Horstm. Altengl. Leg. (1881) 300 Hit was hurre professhennalle rynge. [Cf. profession-ring in PROFESSION 9.]
II. 2. Pertaining to, proper to, or connected with a or one's profession or calling.I think this one catches the contradictory spirit in more modern usage. Macaulay preserves the religious sense, with the notation that reward is not necessarily tied to a sense of professionalism, while Lowell notes the disingenuous sense of the term. Perhaps though, the closest connection to the rise of the term itself is the rise of the middle class:
1747-8 RICHARDSON Clarissa (J.), Professional, as well as national, reflections are to be avoided. 1838 DICKENS Nich. Nick. xiv, I dislike doing anything professional in private parties. 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. iii. I. 332 It was in these rustic priests,..who had not the smallest chance of ever attaining high professional honours, that the professional spirit was strongest. 1870 LOWELL Study Wind. 408 As perfectly professional as the mourning of an undertaker.
3. Engaged in one of the learned or skilled professions, or in a calling considered socially superior to a trade or handicraft. professional (middle) class, members of the learned and skilled professions regarded collectively.So there you have it: social superiority. An upward movement, like a stream of hot air. It generates rain. It’s only when you get to the fourth definition that you get to the money part:
1793 SMEATON Edystone L. 73 Called upon, not only as a professional man, but as a man of veracity. 1871 M. E. BRADDON Zoophyte's Rev. iii, Sometimes there was a party, consisting of professional people..with a sprinkling of the smaller county gentry. 1888 BESANT 50 Years Ago xix. 262 There has been a great upward movement of the professional class. 1979 G. ST. AUBYN Edward VII i. 29 Gibbs had been brought up as a member of the professional Middle Class.
4. a. That follows an occupation as his (or her) profession, life-work, or means of livelihood, as a professional soldier, musician, or lecturer; spec. applied to one who follows, by way of profession or business, an occupation generally engaged in as a pastime; hence used in contrast with amateur, as professional cricketer. Disparagingly applied to one who ‘makes a trade’ of anything that is properly pursued from higher motives, as a professional politician.The fifth definition reverts back to the rising hot air part again, and the sixth hits close to where I’m headed:
5. That is trained and skilled in the theoretic or scientific parts of a trade or occupation, as distinct from its merely mechanical parts; that raises his trade to the dignity of a learned profession.But then, I’ve always been a bit obscure and rare. However, there’s an interesting subtext to that usage:
6. = PROFESSORIAL. Obs. rare.
b. spec. A prostitute. Cf. PROFESSION 6e.I suppose since I’ve never been paid for that I can hang on to my amateur status. I may be a slut, but I’m not a whore. Yet, at least. Will the Internet modify the definition of the term? I doubt it; it seems like the term has been dancing on the edge of both positive and negative connotations since its inception. I doubt that the Internet will clear it up in the slightest.
These windy terms like professional get thrown about so much they become meaningless, really. That’s why I had to have a look. Positive uses of the term seem to be relatively rare. Rising hot air creates rain. Rain, as I found out this morning, creates pressure. As I turned the corner to drive on campus, a manhole cover was floating three inches above the pavement, pushed up by the flood of water rushing onto the road from it. A drain must have been clogged somewhere. Sounds like a job for a professional.
About five hours sleep due to a power failure just as I went to bed... tossing and turning in nervousness that I might miss my morning class.
But I’ve moved to a higher caliber. I turned 44 today, and I celebrated by having a typical Monday. I won’t lay claim to being a magnum, just an ordinary average guy.
As the clock passed midnight, the power came back on, and I found myself drawn back to Blake, with his threefold and fourfold visions. Not enough time to sketch it out, but I just felt a big woosh as my head was sucked into Jerusalem once again. Sometimes I think I’ve read plate 98 about a thousand times, but every time it just sweeps me away.
And they conversed together in Visionary forms dramatic which bright
Redounded from their Tongues in thunderous majesty, in Visions
In new Expanses, creating exemplars of Memory and Intellect
Creating Space, Creating Time according to the wonders Divine
Of Human Imagination throughout three regions immense
Of Childhood, Manhood & Old Age & the all tremendous unfathomable Non Ens
Of Death was seen in regenerations terrific or complacent varying
According to the subject of discourse & every Word & Every Character
Was Human according to the Expansion or Contraction, the Translucence or
Opakeness of Nervous Fibres such was the variation of Time & Space
Which vary according as the Organs of Perception vary & they Walked
To & fro in Eternity as One Man reflecting each in each & clearly seen
And seeing: according to fitness & order.
I’m blown away that a few people on the net noticed that it was my birthday; I seldom pay much attention to them, for I am constantly wrapped in these visionary forms dramatic. They insinuate me.
I was thinking of that in a different way as I drove home from my night class. I wanted to spell it in-sinew-ate. Perception becomes a muscle, under the skin, which flexes itself at the oddest times.
To continue my tirade about journalism, while reading McKeon's book on the novel I was struck by an eerie similarity. Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that when journalists write about the "blogging phenomenon" they always bury a provoking insult in there somewhere? That way, their article will be linked by bloggers, promoting their rise to fame on google. Now that's crafty. I never linked or commented on the "cockroach" thing, because unlike most bloggers I was flattered by the comparison. I also enjoyed Oscar Zeta Acosta's Revolt of the Cockroach People, a novel about the rise of Chicano militants. Acosta, by the way, was Hunter S. Thompson's Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (another of those "rites of passage" novels). Cockroaches are survivors. I think survival is a good thing.
The insults are really getting keen and specific now. In Reading, Writing, and Blogging Jonathan V. Last begins with a positive tag line, spouting the now old party line that blogging makes journalism better. Then he gets in his jab:
But these noble effects of blogging are marginal, and if bloggers were able to be dispassionate about their medium, they would admit that the bad cultural artifacts the blog leaves behind easily balance the scales. For one thing, the blog encourages instantaneous reaction, not serious reflection. And for another, it often degenerates into daisy-chain navel gazing.Ben Jonson apparently wrote a play about the newspapers of his day,to provide a mirror:
Wherin the age may see her owne folly, or hunger and thirst after publish'd pamphlets of Newes, set out euery Saturday, but made all at home, & no syllable of truth in them.Another writer in 1642 complained about of abuse of printing, in publishing every item that comes to their presse . . . Yes, I suspect the major complaint that could be made about blogs is that they will publish just about anything. Sort of like a newspaper.
Daisy-chain navel gazing? Sounds great. Where do I sign up?
I can’t help it. My library just keeps growing. It only took partway through the first chapter of McKeon’s book on the novel before I was online ordering it, and the Cicero to boot. You just can’t have enough at your fingertips. These are books I know I will use. Like that book of selections from the Tatler and the Spectator I got eons ago, while researching the “pleasures of the imagination.”
Brief and uncollected thoughts
McKeon cites one John Aubrey who says of the ancient Britons: “They were two or three degrees, I suppose, less savage than the Americans.” It’s the native Americans that he’s speaking of. Somehow, I suspect that the bashed in skulls found in the bogs since then might refute that appraisal.
Debates over truth and authenticity were at the core of the proliferation of the printed word. If it’s in print, in must be true? Not really. It sort of reminded me of the ongoing metablogging discussion. Folks everywhere are revisiting an old debate with increasing fervor. As periods become defined (and histories get written) the process of separating the truth from fiction becomes increasingly important.
I’ve always had an inherent mistrust of journalism, and much of the debate about web behaviors often goes back to the idea that it's a new “replacement” for journalism. However, I never placed it in the context of the battle between mythoi, “just stories” and logoi, or “true stories.” I also never thought of journalism as the creation of the sort of “lust for the new” which the Romantics are so often accused of. I think that criticism is ungrounded, but it’s often voiced anytime those horrible generalities about Romanticism are thrown about. McKeon suggests that “romance” is the category that came to replace, or fulfill the need satisfied by myth. There was from the beginning a tension between the “new” and the “truth.” McKeon cites an instance where in order to assault a reporters case in 1630, the worst insult Richard Braithwaite could hurl at the reporter was to call his article “novel,” thus undermining its historicity. The fundamental opposition involved, which journalism grew up in the middle of, was between history and romance.
It seems to me that journalism is still very much romance in disguise. While fact checking has been improved, its novelty, or newness, is the single most deciding factor in distribution. It’s seldom well grounded, and presents opinion as often as it presents fact. One of McKeon’s citations made me turn back to the Tatler, for Steele’s comment on those who educate themselves through newspapers:
As great and Useful discoveries are sometimes made by accidental and small Beginnings, I came to the Knowledge of the most Epidemick Ill of this Sort, by falling into a Coffee-house where I saw my Friend the Upholsterer, whose Crack towards Politicks I have heretofore mentioned. This Touch in the Brain of the British Subject, is as certainly owing to the reading of News-papers, as that of the Spanish Worthy above mentioned to the reading of Works of Chivalry. My Contemporaries the Novelists have, for the better spinning out of Paragraphs, and working down to the end of Columns, a most happy Art in Saying and Unsaying, giving Hints of Intelligence, and Interpretations of indifferent Actions, to the greater Disturbance of the Brains of ordinary Readers. (#178, 30 May 1710)This blog is nothing if not the practice of the “most happy Art in Saying and Unsaying, giving hints of Intelligence,” and judging from my mail it does cause great disturbance in the brains of “ordinary readers.”
We aim to please. But don’t fool yourself. This is romance in disguise, but it isn't journalism.
I had just finished reading the introduction to Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 when I had a thought (strange how that happens).
Sorting out “modes” or “genres” is a difficult thing. I’ve read lots of stuff about it, including Todorov and David Perkin’s work. I liked the plan of attack that McKeon laid out: rather than starting with an originary hypothesis, he decided it might be better to begin with the time that the idea of the novel was a useful one and work backward from there. Why did the classification of the novel as something worthy of it’s own noun serve a purpose? Good question.
Then I drove to the store. I started thinking about the centrality of the Internet as a label to identify “new” communicative behaviors. Why is this nominalization useful? I don’t recall seeing book length works on how the telephone changed the world. I didn’t hear many debates over the future of the telephone. Or, the distribution of phone books— oh my god, people will be able to randomly pick out strangers and call them! What might this mean for the future of society?
This is why I find it hard to get too excited about all the net discussion. This thing might as well be a microwave oven or a toaster to me. The question that never seems to get asked is: how is it better than the communication technologies we had before? Were there studies on the social behaviors of the party line? Or, why the party line had its boom period, and then faded from use as the costs of single user telephones grew smaller?
A lot of trees are sure being killed over this Internet thing, which is a bit oxymoronic. The real story is much older than that. It reminded me of a song by Roy Harper.
Pinches of Salt
Arthur read stories he got from the shelf
of the gingerbread house of the men in between
making his mind up to keep to himself
and somewhere the future had been.
Pinches of salt
Just the tune of the moon on the ocean.
One year quite suddenly out of the blue
the phone box grew curtains with Sanderson prints
and designers of countryside loaded the view
with “sort of” decisions and hints
And Arthur slept in on the edge of his seat
way back in his mind where the butterflies flew
bred non-committal to live nice and neat
with lots of his dreams coming true
Pinches of salt
Just the tune of the moon on the ocean.
Roy described on his mailing list what “the phone box grew curtains with Sanderson prints” was about. It misses the US audience. In the UK, telephones were slow to come into homes. It was phone boxes first, but then eventually, there was one in every living room. I suspect that the Internet will really be that way for the majority. It’s an appliance, like a telephone. The majority, still wrapped in their dreams and motives will sleep, until it’s just another thing that’s there, suddenly and out of the blue.
After all, we’re just pinches of salt. Nobody’s fault. Just the tune of the moon on the ocean. We give things like the Internet a name, because it’s useful to have something to call it. “Blog” was created to describe a certain type of location on that communication web. In and of itself, the concept is about as interesting as a telephone number, or a party line. The people behind them, and what they say is what I’m in it for.
I do think that there are evolving modes, genres, and types that deserve looking into. However, discussing the machinery behind them bores me to tears. I’m in it for the stories.
I’ve got e-mails I should answer, papers I need to write, papers I need to grade, and yet every time I look at this box I find something. I do my best to avoid marketing and software people on the web, but every time I turn around and I bump into them.
I just don’t like the mindset. I don’t want to be a product, though I do believe that being consumed is a good thing. I’m not using my web log as a means of increasing productivity, making a sale, or any of the above. I’m writing. Writing changes consciousness in a way that is deeper than any of the subsequent nuances gained through technology. The first web— the web I am most concerned with— is life itself.
I often turn to the Greeks these days. The Fates spin their own sort of web. Clotho, the spinner, produces the thread. Lachesis, weaves it into the events that shapes our lives and Atropos trims it at its conclusion. Is the web a space? I suppose it’s as good a metaphor as anything. To make sense of things, we try to distance ourselves from them. It’s the way the mind works. Having three women governing life is still an attractive, comfortable concept.
To give things power over us, we have to name them. The names of the Fates are not recited much these days, because humanity has moved past them. Instead, we speak of profit and loss, production and consumption, and a hundred other binaries. Yet we fall back easily to the sort of oral aphorisms that fueled the birth of society. Two steps forward, one step back. “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” becomes:
“On the Web everyone will be famous to 15 people”I read this in a review of David Weinberger’s latest book on Amazon. Is this really a change? It seems to me that in everyday life everyone is famous to someone at least, and usually the list could probably be extended to at least fifteen people. People form friendships and friendships are valued— this is news?
I’d never pick up the book under normal circumstances, because of my own mental filtering out of things related to consumer modeling. However, given Tom’s excellent review of it, I may have to rethink that. I don’t think I’ll gain any deep insight, but at the very least it seems as if it's grounded in an appreciation of the larger web.
I have yet to see a convincing argument about what makes the Internet different from the larger web though. Take this fragment of Tom’s review regarding defining the character of this new discourse environment for example:
It's as if our bodies and their nuisance appurtenances of time, space and matter were to be drained off, leaving a sort of puree of human intentionality.That’s called writing. Now that writing is proliferating at an ever-increasing rate, in what is (for now) a largely democratic environment, these questions are pushed to the forefront in a way that is unlike any revolution before, except perhaps the invention of the printing press.
Driving back from school yesterday, it seemed like language is a giant fog bank that we all reach into, trying to touch the people on the other side. That started long before the Internet, and continues with all it’s problems regardless of the technology involved.
I do think of my web presence as a “space” and using it provides a place to stretch out, and sometimes touch a handful of people. It does not, however, have any special priority. This is a notebook. If people are interested in my “waxing philosophical,” fine. Otherwise, not. If people are interested in the stories, or anecdotes from day to day life, fine. Otherwise not. They can flit on to another site and find something that interests them more.
I do think of it as a bit of a social locus, but I constantly do my best to be a good friend and not dwell in one space too long. I don’t want to be boring, though I am sure I often am. That’s the nature of a notebook. Some pages are going to be more interesting than others.
Care to read it? It’s completely up to you. In the parlance of the linguists: “Hearer knows best.”
I could have gone a lot longer without this piece of information. I blame the Internet.
I figured somebody had to make a complaint to go along with the rant by Turbulent Velvet regarding the negative possibilities of the social networking of the Internet. It's a great piece, really. Of course I say that after having recieved a nice comment from someone who stumbled into a piece I wrote last November reacting and pointing to an article about Lewis Carrol, and after having checked out a book that some visitor to my site recomended regarding the history of the novel that seems to be just what I'm looking for... I guess you could say that my complaints with the Internet are superficial by comparison.
It all started after a fruitless search for Cicero's De Inventione. Virtually everything else from Cicero is available on the Internet, but not any of his works on rhetoric. I needed it to ground a post I want to write about the classical Roman structure of the essay. I've seen it quoted a dozen places, but I like to go to the source. That's the problem.
Now I'm faced with a lot more work. Chances are, I'll go ahead and transcribe the relevant sections and put them online. The original text is quite rewarding in regard to the different possibilities of speech-making or writing. It teases out the well-honed six-part essay structure into even more subtle choices.
I could have ordered the book, but since I was sure it could be found in the university library, I decided to make the drive back. Being a Friday afternoon, I knew the place would be deserted and I could park more easily. I had to make a pit stop to rid myself of some excess fluid (more than you wanted to know, I'm sure, but it's essential to the story).
I wrote a long time ago about the practice of placing advertising in bathroom stalls on campus. During the homecoming race last year, some bright soul placed a campaign poster featuring a fresh-faced young girl in a placard above the urinals. This year, it was just a long list of health tips, including the aforementioned "fiber makes floaters" gem. I much prefer the campaign posters.
I snagged a photo I meant to put up long ago from this year's homecoming race. It seems that Supergirl ran for homecoming queen. She was prancing around the campus in her tights, but what amazed me most was the incredibly flattering photo. They didn't go quite so far this year with their electioneering, and I didn't notice any photos in the bathroom stalls. It's a shame really, because there were some fine ones.
The up-the-nose shot has always been one of my favorites. She's got nice nostrils, doesn't she?
I think some spaces should just be private. No, I don't want to sing "row row row your boat" while I'm washing my hands to make sure I do it long enough.
I absolutely insist on drinking caffeinated beverages before going to bed. As a matter of fact, my sleep habits are none of your business while I'm urinating. How rude. Keep your health advice to yourself.
However, the electioneering, particularly of attractive young women, doesn't really bother me while I'm standing in the stall.
Student elections also featured an interesting odd couple. The whitebread fellow on the right was elected vice president, while the campus elected the first black female president in the university's history. It's about time, for a campus which is nearly 40% black. I don't have an explanation for the Uncle Sam character.
It's amazing how little the journalism departments on campuses have changed over the years: this cheesy shot would have been perfectly in place in 1977, the last time I was in a college journalism program.
After studying theories from several different subject fields, I find my mind littered with them. They keep overlapping each other in the strangest ways. Unlike oppositions or negations, triangles create space. Two points on a continuum always result in a line, but it takes a minimum of three points to create a space.
The fundamental rhetorical apparatus is the rhetorical triangle, composed of language, speaker, and audience. It is easily flattened into a terrible sort of continuum. This happens every time we write. Notice that in the triangular representation, there are lines that connect the audience with the speaker, and the audience with the language. If you filter the communication through written words, the audience can no longer see the speaker, only the language. The speaker also is limited, having lost the view of his audience in flatland:
Speaker → Language → AudienceAnd worse still, it's a one way trip.
However, by placing language at the apex of the pyramid it takes on the significance of defining culture, defining the relationship between speaker and audience. Language is the at the pinnacle of the development of society. This whole idea of banding together in groups must have been a tough sale from the beginning: sacrificing immediate personal gain for long term benefits. It seems clear that a functional, useful rhetoric must be at the top of the list of problems to solve. How do we persuade people to act to improve the general, rather than specific personal advantage? Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, was the art of determining the best means of persuasion for a wide variety of occasions.
Identifying the basic modes of persuasion, the Greeks listed three primary appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. There is no implied priority in these appeals, however, by imposing on them a hierarchal structure, an interesting model emerges. Each of these terms is loaded with connotations. Ethos, the root word of ethics, can be interpreted as a personal quality of goodness, or, in the broader sense it means custom, character, or kinship. I have placed that at the top of my pyramid. Another appeal is logos, the root of logic, which also implies "the word" in the divine sense, as well as fact or truth. Pathos is the appeal to the heart. Drawing the appeals this way opens up a space; these things do not lie in a straight line. Custom or character does not imply either heart or truth; there is no simple progression to be found.
These concepts translate well into another sort of trinity: that of mind, body, and soul. The apex should be simple to agree upon. Surely soul would be the highest quality of man. Unitary philosophies, or holistic ones, seem to be aimed at the collapse of the space between these distinctions. I do not think that this provides a useful way of looking at it. Appreciated for their differences, these qualities of man open up a space for conversation to take place, and the form of those conversations can also be teased out into three often overlapping forms of discourse
In The Spectator Role and the Beginnings of Writing James Britton proposed a sort of continuum for writing. The modes of writing he describes are:
Transactional ← → Expressive ← → PoeticBritton's primary thesis is that expressive writing is where all writing begins. With practice and development, writers learn to do different types of work with their writing.
The transactional is the most common form of writing; it is the writing by which we transfer knowledge to each other. The poetic transfers feelings. The expressive contains elements of both. The distinction can also be described through roles. When we write expressively, we are both participant and spectator, whereas transactional writing is more closely allied with participation alone. The role of the poetic then, is the role of the spectator. Rather than representing them on a continuum, a triangle makes more sense.
Then I stumbled on Henri Lefebvre's triadic model of representational spaces through a posting on net.narrative.environments. There were two major concepts in this model that appealed to me. First of all, the idea that representational spaces represent an intersection between what we perceive and conceive. As the often stolen lines from Wordsworth go, we half-create what we half-perceive. This seems obvious. However, tying this to materialism and idealism, and thinking about the model of social spaces described there made all my triangles come together.
Social space is "not a thing but rather a set of relations between [objects and products]."Overlapping these disparate models produces some amazing relations:
Language Ethos Soul Expressive Writing Representational Space Speaker Logos Mind Transactional Writing Spatial Practice Audience Pathos Body Poetic Writing Representation of Space
Britton proposes that expressive writing is the matrix from which all other writing follows. This would make sense, given that it expresses both the inner feelings of a person, and their place in relation to the larger culture. The view of self and world is told through an almost monolithic notion of self: this is how I feel. It's represented often in binaries: I like this. This sucks. Most contemporary writing programs in one fashion or another attempt to open up expressive writing and move it to a higher level, although there is substantial confusion about how to achieve this. Just what is a higher level anyway? I'm beginning to believe that it is tied directly to the relationship of participant and observer.
When an individual writes from these perspectives as if they were one, there is little space for writing to develop. There must be a separation of fact from opinion, logic from feeling, in order to open up a space for more complex writing. These attributes never exist in pure states, however, by attempting to increase the discrimination between them a representational space develops more fully. It's about moving from a point inside the self into other perspectives, with one pole attached firmly to the mind and another firmly rooted in the body that more complex writing evolves. It is only through consciousness of our mind and body, not just our soul, that we become good writers.
Or, I could be completely out to lunch. It was just a thought. I think of triangles a lot. There's a Thin White Rope song that haunts me called "Triangle"
I am feeling just a little down
Nothing I can wrap reasons around
But I can ignore it if I look real hard
And make perfect triangles out of every three stars
Sometimes I make burns on my arms
Cause it moves that feeling from my heart to my arms
And when I'm driving and it keeps me awake
I have so many more triangles to make
Now that I have planted the seed
Maybe those triangles will form without me
Surround the world in their crystalline ache
And freeze the heroes into glassy mosaics
I get lost in these spatial games, like some kid playing with blocks. I want to make things fit together, and move into more dimensions. I want to create some sort of space that these thoughts can find a home in.
It often seems like a crystalline ache.
Because I often talk about what I do in the classroom, I thought I might as well provide some of the material I’m using for those who have an interest in approaches to writing. I’ve read dozens of times on the web that modern thinking about “style” can be separated between the poles of Derrida (or fill in the postmodernist of your choice) and Orwell. Just what does that mean? An Orwellian might say that you can look at writing like a game where he who is the most obtuse, wins. Or you can work for clarity. However, the counter-argument is that language is rich and that limiting oneself to the “plain-style” is ludicrous. A postmodernist wants to revel in the language game.
I chose to teach the Orwell essay that this distinction is derived from for several reasons. First, it follows fairly closely the model of the essay put forward by Cicero (which I also taught), and because it is controversial enough to make people have to think about it. Secondly, the majority of teachers in other subject fields (at the undergraduate level anyway) would hold up the “plain-style” as something close to the model of perfection. Orwell rails against the forces of obscurity in Politics and the English Language.
Written in 1946, this essay tears into the structure of hollow political and academic rhetoric. I’ve been thinking it a lot since our country declared war on a feeling. A “war on terror?” I mean, what the hell is that? It doesn’t get much more obscurantist. This morning, I was thinking about the whole “axis of evil” thing too. Lets see, in order to make the “Johnny goes marching off to war” thing symmetrical, we’ve got to imply an alliance analogous to the Japan/Germany axis by dragging North Korea into the front row. These phrases are the embodiment of what Orwell terms “dying metaphors,” metaphors so tired that they have completely lost their meaning. So I thought Orwell’s essay was appropriate, timely, and concise when it comes to representing the almost Lockean view that we should “say what we mean.”
Okay, but I needed a counterpoint. I wanted to show that language that uses some of the things that Orwell rails against can be effective too. I also wanted to differentiate creative writing from writing good non-fiction essays. So, I chose an essay that changed my outlook toward literature early on: Thomas DeQuincey’s Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power.
That essay, sadly, wasn’t to be found anywhere on the Internet. Well, it’s there now. I scanned it and OCR’d it for the class, so now I’ve turned it into a web document. For people unaccustomed to 19th century prose, it is a bit dense. But that was the point. DeQuincey’s style is anything but plain, and yet it is still concisely defined and argued. And the issues he raises are still important today, particularly for a freshman student who might wonder just what the hell literature is, and what good it does. I raised eyebrows in the department with this one, certainly, because it isn’t my job to teach literature.
However, this is a non-fiction expository essay which strongly argues the value of literature. But it does so much more than that. First, DeQuincey expands literature to the realm of sermons, speeches, theater, etc. Just because it isn’t in a book doesn’t mean it isn’t literature. The same tools with which we approach the analysis of writing can be used in any form of discourse. I think that the distinction that DeQuincey makes in this short piece is easily transferred into life. The division of literatures is pragmatic; the primary difference is the work accomplished by the discourse.
The function of the “Literature of Knowledge” is to teach. The function of what we most commonly think of as literature, “Literature of Power” is to move. It’s the wind in the sails of humanity. Without it, we have nothing to move us along. However, I found myself arguing against some of DeQuincey’s points in class today, right along with my students. “Hey, I learn things from the novels I read . . .” etc.
A perfect case is found in his example of Paradise Lost. DeQuincey asserts that a person who reads Milton’s epic learns nothing. I asked the class the obvious question: “What did Eve eat in the garden of Eden?” The answer, which most people would jump at is: “An apple.” That’s not in the Bible; the bible just says that it’s a fruit. The apple comes from Paradise Lost. People who have never read the poem quote facts from it, filtered through its centuries of influence. I think the class was quite thrilled when I explained why Milton made the fruit an apple instead of a kiwi or a banana. It’s a Latin pun. Apple is mal in Latin, and it also means bad. But the distinction between “fact” and “fiction” is a blurry one, and it’s a distinction I’m trying to get them to make in their essays.
So that’s where I’ve been the last few days. I can’t teach literature, but I can preach it just a little. I do believe that there are answers to be found there, although it contains little in the way of “facts.”
Which brings me to Loren’s lament today, regarding commentary on On the Road:
Unfortunately when Diane and I wrote our analysis of the book, some people were upset because we missed the point of the work. NO. We DIDN’T miss the point of the novel. I knew we had missed the meaning Kerouac had for many readers, which was why I asked Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness to write about it from his perspective. But Diane and I read the book NOW, and it provides no real answers to the questions WE were trying to answer. For Diane and I, it was just another dead end road.I didn’t write much about the book, because they covered it quite effectively. Instead, I wrote about the dangers of lumping writers into “generations” and my own response to the book when I was growing up. I was moved by the book when I was in my teens and twenties. That matches DeQuincey’s distinction precisely. However, as I’m now in my 40s, I’m looking for more depth— my questions are different too. But I cannot deny the tremendous influence of it in moving me when I was young. Everybody needs to find what fills their sails, uniquely and differently at every point in age. To say a book didn’t take you where you wanted to go is not to condemn it. There is a big difference.
William Blake went to his grave singing, with a heart filled with joy in the world, and no fear of leaving it. Yeats reflected on the folly of so many fruitless pursuits as he grew older, and yet still seemed to be happy with the quest for spirit that was his life. These are the guys I look to now, the ones who fill my sails just as Kerouac and Burroughs and Vonnegut and others did when I was younger. It’s all power, folks. You just pick what you need at the time. Literature works.
Yes, I did say reading a certain popular novel made me ready for "the icepick in the forehead" yesterday. I edited it out, because it seemed redundant with my other closing line. This phrase, by the way, is a Frank Zappa reference from Joe's Garage. The other rude line about being done was from Lou Reed. I can't help following all sorts of literary texts.
Rex sent me a larger photo he gleaned from somewhere out there, and I snipped this sticker from the corner. Persuasion is everywhere.
Then, oddly enough, I connected a bit of theory with another one of Rex's familiar admonitions:
Peel me an onion.
In one of my classes last night, the head of the Speech Communications department lectured on some of the current theory there, which overlaps a great deal with rhetorical theory. Though the theorists are different, some of the problems spring from the same fountain. Unlike my earlier estimation of them (I called them the milk and cookies department at one point, because it seemed like kindergarten forever), the goal in Speech Communications is to peel the onion.
The focus in Speech Communications is interpersonal relationships. It strikes me as a weird interface between psychology and rhetoric, a sort of applied psychology, which like rhetoric, is focused on negotiation of problems to a desired resolution. It’s persuasion, just as Aristotle defined rhetoric, but it’s more concerned with the touchy-feely side. Logical argument isn’t a primary concern, but instead, like the “New Rhetoric,” its aim is consubstantiality. We are supposed to all get together and have a group hug, I suppose.
But the model of self as an onion is really almost funny. I can't remember the last time I got sufficiently peeled to think of the universe in this sort of way. I'm too tightly knit, interwoven as it were, to think of self in these terms. All my layers interpenetrate.
The Social Penetration Process. I can get behind that. After all, even Rex would admit that penetration is a common goal. That, according to these folks, involves peeling the onion. We start at the outer layers of superficial commonality, moving into the levels of ethical agreement. When we feel comfortable in revealing our deeply held spiritual values, then we're getting nearer to the "core personality."
I love models. But there are big problems with this one. It presupposes a unitary self. That is, according to most current theory, a fallacy. Of course the head of the department knew that. But when you discard the core of the onion, the skin just starts flailing about. I don't think this model works well at all.
Mike Sanders, in another strange coincidence, spoke of another model similar to what the Speech Communications specialist offered last night. John Hiler proposed a model of "time economics" for blogging, where the amount of time invested in linking is far less than the time required to generate real content. Time-economics is a matter of time invested vs. reading time accrued. This has deep resonance with the costs and rewards model of friendship. The theory is that we weigh our friendships based on what the costs are versus the benefits in a reasonable economic model. When the scale tips too far, we shut the friendship down. I don't buy that model either. It presupposes a sort of dialectic continuum to life, a continuum that I increasingly doubt.
Talking to Dr. Kleine during a break, he put it very succinctly: "Dialectic models have limited usefulness when you have more than two people, or more than two alternatives involved." It's not in my opinion, a useful model of web behaviors. It's a rationale which hides the real reason why people often link, rather than write: they don't want to peel the onion.
There are only a few link-pointing blogs that I read regularly, Wood s lot being one of them. The reason is that he provides thoughtful extracts rather than just quick ambiguous pointers. I would suspect that he spends a reasonable amount of time selecting which parts he extracts, because they are often key thoughts in the middle of huge documents. It's hardly a more "efficient" mode of creating traffic, especially when it's done well.
It was fun, really. I got to show off my kids. I got the call at 8pm last night that Dr. Andrea Hermann needed to sit in on one of my classes sometime in the next few weeks. I picked today, because I really wanted to do a review of the material that I’ve covered so far before they finish up their drafts for next week. There has been a certain nervousness from some people in the department that I might be aiming too high for freshman students.
I mean, who tackles Thomas DeQuincey in freshman comp? Not many teachers on my campus, anyway. The interesting thing for me was that I had another huge paradigm shift when I was trying to sleep last night. I managed to superimpose the classic Greek appeals, James Britton’s classes of writing, and Henri Lefebvre’s representational spaces onto one model. This brings together what I’ve told them about the Roman model of the essay, the steps to an effective sale, and the appeals, into one easy to digest graphic model. So I taught it today.
It came off well. I skipped the techno-babble, as I usually do, and cut right to the chase of how it could work for them. They all managed to remember the Roman model, the appeals, and the types of formal logic when I asked. So there. Freshman students are brighter than what people want to give them credit for. I really feel like they get coddled too much, writing about their summer vacation and such when their writing could actually be doing work for them. I think the models that I’m offering work, are concurrent with the classical models, and at the same time are open to more postmodern approaches.
I suspect I’ll write more about them here in the few days as I get it sorted out (with jargon included, sorry) so that I can fix this little epiphany. Writing is a life skill. It needs to be taught that way, not just as an arcane technology for surviving school.
Damn, I love this job. Students came into class arguing about the Orwell essay we just covered. Great! I don’t agree with all of it either, and it was just gratifying to have them find its weak points on their own, without coaching from me. Of course, Dr. Hermann might have thought that I coached them to think that way, but really I didn’t. Their thoughts were personal, reasoned, and well placed. No argument, or essay, is ever perfect. Figuring out where the writer misses the mark is as important as where they hit. That’s the only way you can spot your own problems, and learn to shore-up your writing to avoid assault.
While I don’t think that writing classes should be feared as chemistry or the sciences, I do believe they should be as meaty as the sciences in terms of real practical knowledge rather than just skill exercises.
I feel like this is where the payoff of all those years of wondering how I would teach comes in. It feels good to present what is really quite complex, as simple enough for even a freshman to understand.
Dr. Hermann just quitely smiled through most of it. I wasn't nervous at all. I'm pretty sure she'll give me a positive evaluation. Dr. Levernier asked me if I was teaching the same class next semester. He told me that if he could match it to his schedule, he wanted to sit in on my class. As one of the co-authors of a writing textbook now in its sixth printing, that is indeed high praise. The way I'm approaching things is quite different from his book, but in some ways I've modeled it after him with a more classical/postmodern approach. His approach is the paragraph. Mine is the essay.
I was just forced to watch an episode of anorexic McBeal in a class. The episode closed with some Michael Bolton clone crooning. I think I’m going to be really ill now.
Leaving the class, a torrential rain started. Thankfully, teaching this morning is still a pleasant memory. Nobody told me there’d be days like these... I wish I could have the three and a half hours I spent reading that novel back this afternoon.
Of course I exaggerate. The highlight of the evenings class was when I hinted at my belief that Socrates was a master manipulator. The professor responded:
If you believe that, then the entire ethical structure of Western philosophy is suspect!I let it lie, and then after class I had to tell him that I do think that the entire ethical structure of Western philosophy is suspect. He said:
You're right— it is.
With twenty minutes to spare, I finished Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. It was without a doubt the worst novel I’ve read in a long while. Utterly predictable, depressing, boring, filled with pointless detail... Uh, did I remember to say that I hated it?
My professor thinks that it is one of the best of the twentieth century, risk taking and daring. I try to withhold my sniping in class, but the damn thing is just rotten to the core as far as I’m concerned. It opens by telling what’s going to happen in three paragraphs. The teacher said this was a “risk.” Nabokov does the same thing in Laughter in the Dark with much greater effect. Each of the early chapters has little connection with the main story, except to set the scene. In Mexico, they accept death as a part of life. Alright, I get it already, next! But it never stops. Chapter after chapter ends in meaningless death. Finally, when the major characters are fleshed out, you find out that they are pretty much made of stone. No real feelings, just constant involvement in mundane stuff.
Yech!!!! I just had to rant and get it out of my system. I know this was a fairly popular book years ago, but reading it made me feel much better about ignoring contemporary fiction.
Stick a fork in my ass and turn me over, I’m done.
That settles it. I’m teaching Thomas Dequincey’s “Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power” on Wednesday. I can’t take any more of this contemporary crap. But I must admit, I did enjoy using Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” today. I know all contemporary writing isn’t bad, it just sometimes smells that way.
A long day grading papers. But at least I’m now nearly caught up. All I have to do is teach two classes, read a medium sized novel, and have it finished in time for my night class.
Then I can start working on the hypertext essay for my Tuesday night class. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll have that finished on time, but I’m going to give it a try. The problem is, constructing it will involve revisiting huge chunks of Aristotle on Rhetoric. Oh well, such is the life of a... just whatever the hell it is that I am.
But for a moment, there can be a little peace. On the good side, the essays were far more interesting than I expected. I’ve got to start writing some stuff about the classes so I’ll have something to turn in for a “journal” for the practicum, but it’s hard to get motivated to construct another journal besides this one. With this one, I get feedback instead of performing a rote exercise to satisfy a teacher that I’m engaged with the material. Hell yes I’m engaged. If I was any more engaged with rhetorical issues at this point, I’d need to be surgically separated!
For some reason, I’ve got a scene, either from a book or a movie in my head about an Native American custom of going to a hill at sunrise each day to sing the world into being. It seems to me that music is just so close to the soul, our world, and our perception of it. It seems fitting that the latest Doubletake features both new photographs by Danny Lyon (one of my heroes) from the reservation, and an article about “internal music.” A few of the photographs from the magazine, and a few that aren’t there, can be found at Lyon on the Rez. It’s well worth a surf.
The article by Andrew Potok details the work of Connie Tomaino at the Institute of Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Hospital. In brief, it’s an exploration of the function of music in consciousness. Some diseases cause a miscuing between the auditory system and the brain stem, so playing a rhythm to a Parkinson’s patient for example, helps them to walk correctly where they were unable to take a single step before. Fascinating stuff. The conjectures involve the connection with auditory impulses and the emotional processing centers (well discussed in an entry of mine I’m tired of citing). It seems like music can actually substitute or supplant some damaged functions, helping resynchronize an internal clock. This is due to the separate structures of emotional processing vs. temporal processing which I’ve often discussed. However, the article does engage in more simplistic hemispheric hypotheses:
In patients whose language functions have been damaged, as in cases of expressive aphasia, where comprehension is intact but the ability to execute language has been damaged, or with stroke victims, it now seems possible to enhance speech function by singing to their right-brain. A person loses the ability to communicate verbally, but can still sing songs. The centers of speech are dominant in the brains left temporal area, while the part that controls singing is in the right. As a result, some aphasia patients can sing songs even though they are unable to speak. There is clinical evidence that people start recovering the ability to use words and phrases spontaneously.
”Nothing is localized to one part of the brain,” Connie says. “There is constant cross talk. Take the man who couldn’t walk but could dance. It isn’t just the motor cortex that’s involved, but a whole group of locations dealing with the subtlety of movement.”
I suspect the “right / left” thing is Potok’s simplification, not the researcher’s. As I alluded to in the post on Searle, the theories regarding language function in the brain hardly isolate it in one hemisphere. There is a lot of dispute there. However, the idea that sounds are processed differently than other types of input is fascinating. This tends to suggest that there may be different levels of temporal processing going on— a logical temporal ordering, and a musical one. This could help explain the reason why rhythmic sounds help people walk. Music seems to be part of the lizard brain.
I must say I like that idea, myself.
Every time I put my hands in my pants I feel a prick.”
Strange how those little moments of movie dialogue make the world make sense. One of the hazards of the “Shandy style” is being misread. Loren, you’re right. Disagreement doesn’t bother me. It would be nice however, if they were disagreeing with what I said rather than what they thought I said.
Speaking of disagreement, take a look at this flopnozzle. When I was still planning on an MLS, I found out that a fellow I just mentioned below, Dr. Jim Parins, had library science as a minor on his Ph.D. in Victorian Literature. He told me that it was the single most practical thing that he ever did in his program. He now is one of the people who runs the American Native Press Archive. One of my favorite projects as an undergrad was contributing a text to their online presence, The Poems of John Rollin Ridge. Who knows, I may still go after an MLS. I think librarians are cool, myself. To each his own. Thanks Sharon. The first thing I told my kids in starting to do their research was to befriend the reference librarians. They are always among the smartest people on any campus. You can stump the specialists easily, but the librarians, well . . .
Librarians are usually the best source of information regarding the debate over intellectual property, but I just received a great link from a tech writer: The Mouse that Ate the Public Domain. I really like the point made at the end of the article, that a large public domain is essential to the health of the arts. That’s the key thing about libraries. They make borrowing possible. Intellectual property is a thorny topic, but one thing is sure:
Borrowing is ubiquitous, inevitable, and, most importantly, good. Contrary to the romantic notion that true genius inheres in creating something completely new, genius is often better described as opening up new meanings on well-trodden themes.As usual, he uses the Romantics as the bad guys (so, what else is new?) and simplifies their perspective. Coleridge, for example, in his concept of the secondary imagination suggested that artistic creation happens when something divine is combined with something which preexists in our sphere of reference. Completely new? Nah, just inspired. The Romantics were all constantly inspired by borrowings, just as we are now.
I can’t figure out why some of them end up here. However, the questions are sometimes amusing. Recently, someone surfed in looking to find the answer to why do men like to masterbate i n women's panties. Sorry Bud, I can’t help you there. I’ve never been drawn to that myself, and it’s a mystery to me too.
However, I can offer an opinion for the search query: William Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey" sister explanation
The question of why Wordsworth’s sister shows up at the end of Tintern Abbey is a good one. It warms my heart to think that someone out there is searching the web for perspectives on poetry. That poem is a keystone to one aspect of romantic thinking, and if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read it, you owe it to yourself to give it a go. It is truly a masterpiece.
Borrowing from Russell Murphy, Jim Parins, and Paul Yoder (some of my profs), I will attempt to trace the perspective shifts involved. Dr. Murphy was a big proponent of “simple” explanations for complex poems. To understand Romantic poetry, it is important not to get lost in the symbolism involved. The primacy of the romantics lies in their ability to transmit core human feelings, feelings that everyone has, into concrete images rather than abstract algebra. But they do it within a matrix of poetic tradition, and exposure to these traditions and historical perspectives, brought to life by Dr. Yoder, also helps.
Tintern Abbey is a prospect poem. This genre, developing out of Sir John Denham’s (1615-1669) Cooper’s Hill, begins with a meditation on a landscape viewed from above. However, this is merely the point of departure. It’s meant to talk about larger issues, rather than the landscape itself. Denham’s prospect is historical and political, Wordsworth (and other Romantic poets who adopted the genre) moved it into a more personal reflective realm. The scene is set of a traveler who views a vista he has not seen for some time, with some hesitation in his heart. The early lines of Tintern Abbey offer the possibility of reading it as a social commentary. I’ve read papers that focus on the lines that close the first section:
With some uncertain notice, as might seemThere are two social issues here, poverty and loneliness. The industrial revolution was really sort of a glint in the eye of progress at this point, but its stirrings were being felt in the form of rural poverty as people rushed to the cities to find work. But, in my opinion it is the second issue that Wordsworth attempts to address instead. But there are other issues which also come to mind, as a thoughtful man revisits a familiar landscape.
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the dinJim Parins, a Victorianist with strong respect for the Wordsworth emphasized the restorative quality of nature implied here: that even in memory, nature can calm us. However, I see the emphasis once again in the second issue raised: “the best portion” of a person’s life comes from his interaction with other men, those “nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.” Stepping back from the genre issues, I feel that it is best to just picture the scene, as Russell Murphy always encouraged me to do. A man is standing on a hill thinking. Thinking of his life, and wondering about what is most important. Nature is there, but also the memory of people he has known. Then comes the real romantic turn: the turn inward. Another gift which Wordsworth contemplates is the value of dreams:
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:--feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,Exploration of the really major themes is what I find lacking in most modern poetry, and the reason why I am always drawn back to these guys. Tracing the progression through this fairly short poem, we find little of the “self-obsession” that the Romantics are always accused of. Wordsworth has nodded at politics through the vagrants now present on the hillside, nodded at history through the endurance of the landscape, nodded at humanity through the thoughts of gestures of kindness, and yet the central theme is one of deep exploration into the nature of the world, a world that is discovered by self, and yet is not self.
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Almost suspended, we are laid asleepI just can’t get over the image of “an eye made quiet by the power.” Joy and harmony are only one form of “power” though, and that is why I don’t list Wordsworth in my top five favorite poets. I think that he does approach the core issue of life though: insatiable desire to know more in an “unintelligible world.”
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Then the poem takes a big turn, and we are taken away from this spot of time into the real physical universe once again. He turns to the view of the river, but then, he turns to his sister. This is a common moment for any thinking feeling person. We wonder about the world, and in order to feel peace with it we leave it for a brief second and then return. Many people have felt this moment of transcendence, but few have captured it as well as Wordsworth.
The world is a place that we “half create and half perceive.” Shelley took this moment and stretched it much further, but in this short take, you’ve got to give Wordsworth credit. Why is his sister there? Because he is alive, and living in a world filled with people not just speculation. The world is too much with us, and we need to find joy not just in our thoughts but in the people around us. That’s the lesson of Tintern Abbey as far as I’m concerned.
I think that people should drink of this poem often, and deeply. That’s not just the romanticist in me talking, but the man who often lives in his own head who often wishes that when I turned, there would be someone else there. Everybody needs a sister.
I’ve got a problem. People who have read me, or talked to me for very long generally marvel at it. One thing always leads to another. Where I end up is often a surprise to everyone, including me. Some people tell me I’m a good writer. I hate it when that happens.
It’s been happening a lot lately. I keep trying to put it out of my head, because I know what happens anytime I get anywhere near success. I blow it. My ex-wife figured that out, way back when I was a salesman. I could be leading the store for nearly an entire month, but the second I glanced at the figures and saw how well I was doing, my sales dropped drastically. It’s as if I am allergic to success. I hesitate to repeat some of the praise I’ve received in the past two weeks, mostly for that reason.
One of the top two or three students to participate in the program since it’s inception (about ten years). Your writing is a model of clarity and insight, etc. Folks who have been reading me here for long know that isn’t always the case. Often, I get pretty twisted up in ideas and have to write my way out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s largely why I started keeping a web log. So I could isolate the moments of clarity amid all the noise of constant associations. Everything reminds me of something else.
My mentor in the English department has a short attention span. If I want to be put in my place, all I have to do is talk to him. He’s got a Ph.D. from Duke, and is always so wrapped up in his own ideas that he doesn’t have much time to spare for other people. However, he’s brilliant and I talk to him when I can. I was really let down that I couldn’t take the seminar he’s teaching now on Blake, Sterne, and Locke. I spoke to him at the lecture a few days ago. I tried to tell him about what I was working on right now, but it was too complicated to explain in short sentences. He stopped me cold:
C’mon, get to it— you’re worse than Tristram Shandy!The paradox brought me back to earth. In the Rhetoric department, they think I’m a model of clarity and insight. In the English department, I’m often accused of rambling. Thank god! The worst thing in the world would be starting to feel successful; that would be a guarantee of my failure.
I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, and that’s why I wanted to take that seminar. Blake and Locke I know, but Sterne . . . After the quote from it on Wood s lot that I read the next day, I just had to go out an buy a copy. Damn it, I can’t read it right now. I’ve got too much other stuff to do. But . . . I read through the first eight or so chapters and settled on a suitable defense:
Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out, — bear with me,— and let me go on, and tell my story my own way: — or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, — or should sometimes put on a fool’s cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along,-- don’t fly off, — but rather courteously give me a little credit for a little more wisdom than appears on my outside, — and as we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing, — only keep your temper.I believe that if I had a blogging manifesto, that would be it.
Sometimes thinking like Tristram Shandy can be problematic. Unfortunately, I don’t have much choice in the matter. I suppose I'll always be irritating to somebody.
Akron Valley, Pennsylvania. December 2001.
You won't believe me maybe but it's true. Where I come from. Where white smoke like steam rises through cracks in the earth. Where the mines sunk deep inside the earth are burning. Wind Ridge, Bobtown, McCracken, Cheet were the names of the mines when they had names. When the mines were still being worked, before the fires.
Where do you live, I live in Hell. I am a child of Hell. I am an American and a child of Hell. Ask me if I am happy, I am.
Joyce Carol Oates
The 10 year aniversary issue of Blind Spot is quite good. Click the links on the author's names to see a few samples. Call me crazy, but I really do love Friedlander and Baldessari.
One of the great things about coming back to school was the chance to meet so many really smart people. Some of them are even nice. One of my professors (vague identification to avoid slander) took a seminar during his doctoral studies from John R. Searle, who was visiting professor. The professor in question, besides being brilliant, is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I’ve really never heard him say a negative thing about anyone— except John Searle.
He has said repeatedly that Searle was rude, arrogant, full of himself and generally not a good person. However astute his work in linguistics might be, he just isn’t a fun person to be around. I’ve started noticing this as I read more things that Searle has written.
I started poking around after Wood s lot pointed at a great article in the New York Review of Books regarding Stephen Pinker’s recent book on language, Words and Rules. I’ve cited Searle’s work a few times around here, and I was really interested in one of the primary points in that review:
The different logical character of the particular and the general suggests that different cognitive abilities and indeed different parts of the brain are involved in the two sorts of abilities. Studies of brain-damaged patients suggest that this is so. One can have damage to the capacity for memorizing words, without hurting the capacity to apply rules. Pinker's account here is the most intellectually important part of his book. Recent technological advances in brain imaging, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), can give us information about which structures in the brain are processing which information. The good news, Pinker tells us, is that some recent studies show that different parts of the brain are activated for words and rules, in his special sense of these notions. The bad news is that the different research teams do not agree on which parts of the brain are activated by each process. Much of the importance of this work derives from the fact that if he is right then Noam Chomsky is wrong to think of language competence as a distinct faculty in the brain.I’m still puzzling over this bit. On the heels of what I have recently been musing about regarding memory and the amygdala, this sort of bifurcated structure where “words” are processed differently and separately than “rules” seems amazingly close to the distinction between temporal and imagistic emotional memory. This is really exciting stuff (for me anyway). According to the same smart guy mentioned at the onset of this entry, the separation was actually implied by Jakobson long before Pinker got onto it, so it’s not all that new (though it was new to me). Chomsky was certainly aware of the debate over structures of language processing long before Pinker’s book.
The question is not essentially one of anatomy. It is not whether there is a single location in the brain for the language faculty or two different locations. The question is rather a functional question. Is there one set of functions performed by the brain, or are there two distinct sets of functions? According to Pinker's theory there are two quite different faculties, and they differ both anatomically and in the principles of their operation. This issue is still very much in doubt.
Why does Searle assert that this means that Chomsky is wrong? As far as I know, Chomsky wasn't arguing about anatomy, but rather, language function. Chomsky’s argument is that we are hardwired for language. What difference does it make if the wiring is more complicated than was first thought? Why be so abrasive about it? “A “distinct faculty” does not imply a single location in the brain. I suspect that this agonism is just hardwired into Searle.
I was looking at another article in Reason magazine where Searle takes on the postmodernists:
Reason: One version of "postmodernism" which you discuss is "relativism." There are many varieties of relativism, and it's pretty clear from your book that you take the arguments for these views to be pretty bad.
Searle: I think they're terrible.
Reason: How did you characterize these arguments, and what do you think is wrong with them?
Searle: There are a number of arguments. The one that most affects people today is what I call "perspectivalism." That's the idea that we never have unmediated access to reality, that it's always mediated by our perspectives. We have a certain perspective on the world, we have a certain position in society that we occupy, we have a certain set of interests that we articulate, and it's only in relation to these perspectives that we can have knowledge of reality. So the argument goes, because all knowledge is perspectival there is no such thing as objective knowledge-you can't really know things about the real world or about things as they are in themselves.
Now that's just a bad argument. I grant you the tautology: All knowledge is our knowledge. All knowledge is possessed by human beings who operate in a certain context and from a certain perspective. Those seem to me to be trivial truths. But the conclusion that therefore you can never have objectively valid knowledge of how things really are just doesn't follow. It's a bad argument. And that's typical of a whole lot of these arguments.
Compare that definition of a bad argument with Searle’s own argument for objective knowledge:
The problem that all these guys have is that once you give me that first premise-that there is a reality that exists totally independently of us-then the other steps follow naturally. Step 1, external realism: You've got a real world that exists independently of human beings. And step 2: Words in the language can be used to refer to objects and states of affairs in that external reality. And then step 3: if If 1 and 2 are right, then some organization of those words can state objective truth about that reality. Step 4 is we can have knowledge, objective knowledge, of that truth. At some point they have to resist that derivation, because then you've got this objectivity of knowledge and truth on which the Enlightenment vision rests, and that's what they want to reject.
How does the having words (which continually shift in meaning) imply that we can state objective truths about reality? Now that’s just a bad argument. Structurally, the logic in both arguments is the same. Sometimes, logic doesn't really work to settle disputes. Even Kant couldn't prove his case without the introduction of faith.
I do love Searle's take on Derrida though:
Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so, " he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.
Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That's very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.
Okay, I’m done being Searley. I just wanted to save these bits for my own reference, I’ll try to write something more interesting later.
I went to a lecture last night by Chris Castiglia: “Monica Lewinsky, The Scarlet Letter, and The Music Man.”
I can’t cover it in detail, because it danced with incoherence and I’m tied up in other stuff. However, I just wanted to jot a few notes.
Castiglia opened with the premise that American democracy is based on an idea that moral values are considered to be private and internal; this is a rather perverse conception in his view, because democracy is by definition public and external to the individual. He then covered some material regarding phrenology in the 19th century. “Perverse behavior” was thought to reside in some sort of internal place in the body (predictable by the bumps on your head). His contention was that the attempts to eradicate perversion from the body opened up a space where moral values could supposedly reside in the American consciousness. Castigila also noted that according to the phrenology “maps” of the early president’s heads, they all were noticeably deficient in the bumps thought to be connected with fantasy.
Then he sang a song from Les Misérables. Seriously, I’m not kidding. Yes, he is gay. The next part of the lecture was about the nature of crushes. Crushes reside entirely in the land of fantasy, and by his definition are only crushes when they represent an unattainable fantasy ideal. He sketched a portrait of the Broadway musical as the ultimate representation of the crush, both in structure and in plot. Then he revealed that the song he sang was sung by Lewinsky at her high school talent show. She won a big prize for it.
Next, it was off into Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Superimposing the Lewinsky debacle on the Scarlet Letter was perhaps the most entertaining part. I never thought of her as Hester Prynne before. Fun stuff. I think he overplayed the fantasy part of the novel, but, still it was an interesting thesis.
He lost me somewhere in the middle of The Music Man, and I’m not sure if I’m buying his thesis all that much, but it was fun. Ultimately he argued that Monica Lewinsky represents a new hero for the country, because she was never a “rat” and displayed a healthy fantasy crush. The funniest thing though, was Zabelle Stodola describing how they met. Her specialty is early American captivity narratives (stories written by white folks held captive by the natives). Captivity narratives also played a big part in Castiglia’s first book. Dr. Stodola proclaimed:
“We met in Chicago when I was researching there about ten years ago. While Chris has moved on, I’m still wrapped up in bondage.”I suppose it would help if you knew Dr. Stodola, but I just rolled...
Epideictic in action: a trail of breadcrumbs that is fascinating regarding controversy surrounding an invitation to Laura Bush to speak at commencement for UCLA. The rhetoric involved is just fascinating. I was really amused by this, particularly one embedded paragraph in the sea of quotes:
Laura Bush seems good-hearted and would surely give a nice speech here. I try not to hold against her my belief that her husband stole the presidency, plunged the economy into recession, shredded half the Bill of Rights, aggravated world tensions, and shoveled our budget surplus and natural environment over to his corporate pals, all this beginning long before the 9/11 atrocities (which were helpfully funded by the $43 million Bush sent the Taliban last May over the objections of those silly feminists and "liberal morons" at universities).
Real deliberative discourse from Jonathon Delacour: The long and short of it. He takes on a topic I've fished around a few times in the distant past which is becoming increasingly important due to RSS syndication: the length of blog posts. Obviously, I chafe at the dictum of brevity. I'll stifle my urge to quote large sections, and instead suggest that you read the whole thing. It's well considered, and certainly future directed. I think this is one of the key points which separates true deliberative discourse rather than metablogging (though he does label it as such).
I've been watching and marveling at the Pepys Project. Though it has flown high on Daypop and Blogdex since its inception, it seems to me that there are relatively few listings on it, compared to all the linkage. It seems like a great idea though: locating and indexing bloggers geographically. It's sort of like the ageless project, in that it is an attempt to impose some sort of logic in organizing blog listings. An interesting alternative to just surfing randomly by "most recently updated." Good blogs are hard to find, and this sort of project in making sense of the writing community seems inevitable.
I suppose I'll get around to opting in eventually, but there is a part of me that wonders if the blogging community isn't like the art or academic world: listing yourself too many places cheapens your image. It's not just being seen, but being seen in the right places. The nagging question concerns what sort of readers you want to attract. I suspect that many don't want their immediate neighbors reading their blogs, so they might be reluctant to advertize in this venue.
I was sitting on a retaining wall with my legs crossed in a half-lotus reading Écrits when another student walked up to me and said: “you look just like a student!” Of course, not being quick-witted enough, I failed to utter the correct comeback: “Hey, I resemble that remark!”
As I mentioned yesterday, I have a big problem with goal-oriented strategies. If I adopted one, I would have quit being a student last year. I have two shiny degree certificates that arrived in the mail yesterday (I hate ceremony) that are emblazoned with magna cum laude. One of them is in “Professional and Technical Writing,” the second in English literature. If I jumped on the corporate train, I could make far more money with those certificates than I could dream of with the doctorate that everyone is urging me to get. Bah. I’ve got higher standards than that— it has nothing to do with letters after my name or financial success. It's a way of life. I won't be jumping on any trains or issuing any manifestos, because ultimately, I do feel like I have a clue.
Driving home, a different perspective on the argument I made yesterday occurred to me. Dr. Yoder once simplified the debate between John Locke and William Blake to me in this way:
Blake’s standard of measure was Genius.That says it much better than I did yesterday. I choose Blake as a model of effectiveness rather than Locke.
Locke’s standard was mediocrity.
It’s a completely different perspective. Rather than saying that things are better or worse than the norm, why not measure them against the ultimate attainment? Of course, everything suffers by this comparison, and it makes life a quest for higher levels rather than complacent acceptance of a norm.
What I was reading in Lacan yesterday just resonated with me as the ultimate in educational philosophy. I spoke to Dr. Levernier this morning, and in the process realized that his strategy is much the same. In teaching American Literature, he does his best to overcome everyone’s programmed notion of literature. It’s a hard fight, especially for people like me who are steeped in the British tradition. But he did it for me, and I hope that someday, I can do it for other people as effectively as Dr. Levernier. What Lacan proposes in “Function and Field of Speech and Language” is this:
I consider it to be an urgent task to disengage from concepts that are being deadened by routine use the meaning that they regain both from a re-examination of their history and from a reflection on their subjective foundations.
That, no doubt, is the teacher’s prime function — the function from which all others proceed, and the one in which the price of experience is best inscribed.
If this function is neglected, meaning is obscured in an action whose effects are entirely dependent on meaning, and the rules of psychoanalytic technique, being reduced to mere recipes, rob the analytic experience of any status as knowledge and even of any criterion of reality.
No “seven habits” for me, thank you. That stuff impoverishes the soul. As Blake so aptly puts it, it’s all about the “mental fight.” Which implies a proactive conflict, a constant assault of new knowledge against old. Begin with an end in mind? NEVER!
I prefer Isocrates’ notion of Antidosis, echoed by Shelley in his Defence of Poetry. The flexing of the mental muscles strengthens the mind in the same way that one strengthens the body through exercise. Use your brain, not a recipe. That is, unless you are comfortable with forever reaching for mediocrity./soapbox mode off
Mike Sanders proffered the top three tips from a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People on Monday. I really hate this crap. I was forced to listen to it for years in sales training, and heard even more of it when I first started back to school. It is utterly ridiculous reductive shit. That isn't to say that it doesn't have some basis in fact; it just depends on how you define effective.
My lecture for my classes on Monday was to superimpose the model of effective sales upon the Roman model of the essay. It works quite well, actually. The majority of the steps are there, only with new names coined in the 20th century. Writing is often sales, but not always. To say that all writing is sales is the sort of simplification that I'm talking about. It misses the point. The point is to communicate effectively. But I digress, let's get down to it.
Let's take a look at the language of those three tips:
1) Be ProactiveJust what the hell does that mean? Looking at proactive in the Merriam Webster's dictionary, it lists the primary meaning as:
relating to, caused by, or being interference between previous learning and the recall or performance of later learningI don't suppose that the author of the book meant that. Be conflicted? If he had meant that, I might agree. It's more likely he meant it in the MBA self-help drivel sense:
acting in anticipation of future problems, needs, or changesThis goes right along with the second point listed, which could also be stated: Begin with a closed mind, myopically fixed on a goal.
2) Begin with the End in MindIn other words, never adhere to the first meaning of proactive: never let learning something new conflict with past learning, keep your eye on the prize. What utter crap. If you're ignorant, be sure to flout your ignorance by beginning with an ill-conceived predetermined notion before you start any undertaking. But of course this doesn't begin to approach the stupid tautology of the third point:
3) Put First Things FirstI believe that it is the practice of innovative thinkers to put first things last. If you have a notion that is so well memorized and rote in your brain that it floats to the top, it may or may not be the best solution to the problem.
The real growth happens when you step outside of habit, and look for innovative solutions to problems rather than the tried and true. Otherwise, you are destined to repeat the same dull "effective" round over and over. This makes sense in a bureaucratic environment perhaps, but not in a dynamic human one. Things change. What was once first, often becomes last. So why be stuck with the model that is dictated? If being effective means avoiding innovation (and in the business model, it usually does) then by all means, put first things first.
I believe that being reactive and open to change is a far more valuable skill. However, there are no short courses available in that. It takes experience in dealing with things outside the comfortable business model. It takes living.
Just say no to trite models. Live, instead of being "effective."
Read good books, not garbage.
Though the authorship of Problems has been contested, I like to think it was Aristotle. It casts a different light on the nature of serious philosophical debate. It’s a book of questions that one might imagine jotted down subsequent to an after-hours party:
Why is it that it is not those who are very drunk that are most troublesome in their cups, but those who are only half blotto? Is it because they have neither drunk so little that they still resemble the sober nor so much that they are in the incapacitated state of those who have drunk deep? Further, those who are sober have more power of judgment, while those who are very drunk make no attempt to exercise their judgment; but those who are only half blotto can still exercise their judgment because they are not very drunk, but they exercise it badly because they are not sober, and they are ready to despise some of their neighbors and imagine that they are being slighted by others.Yeah, those pesky half-drunks. I remember them well. But the questioning here really probes deep seated human issues:
Why is it that to those who are very drunk everything seems to revolve in a circle, and as soon as the wine takes hold of them they cannot see objects at a distance, and so this is used by some as a test of drunkenness? . . .Unconcocted moisture, the root of all human problems. Or was that sex?
Why is it that to those who are drunk one thing at which they are looking sometimes appears to be many? . . .
Why is it that the tongue of those who are drunk stumbles? Is it because, just as the whole body staggars in drunkeness, so also the tongue stumbles and cannot articulate clearly? Or, is it because the flesh of the tongue is spongy ? It therefore becomes saturated and swells up . . .
Why is it that those who are drunk are incapable of having sexual intercourse? Is it because to do so a certain part of the body must be in a state of greater heat than the rest, and this is impossible in the drunken owing to the to the large quantity of heat present in the whole body; for the heat set up by the movement is extinguished by the greater surrounding heat, because they have in them a considerable quantity of unconcocted moisture?
Why is it that one who is having sexual intercourse, and also a dying person, casts his eyes upward, while the sleeper casts his eyes downward? . . .The Greeks obviously had lots of spare time, and inquiring minds.
Why do the eyes and buttocks of those who indulge too frequently in sexual intercourse sink very noticably, though the latter are near and the former far from the sexual organs? Is it because these parts co-operate very noticeably in the effort made in the act of coition, contracting at the point of emission of the semen? . . .
Why is it that those who desire to submit to sexual intercourse feel a great shame about confessing it, which they do not feel in confessing a desire for meat or drink or anything of that kind? Is it because the desire for most things is necessary and its non-satisfaction is sometimes fatal to life, but sexual desires proceed from something beyond mere necessity?
Inquiring minds want to know!
I finally got around to cruising my new two-volume Princeton edition of Aristotle last night while unwinding after class. Yes, I find amusement in the strangest places. It dawns on me that it was actually the cause of a few laughs in class. People are of the impression that I find the weirdest scholarly stuff entertaining. They’re right.
Of course, I first looked at On Memory. Aristotle makes some interesting distinctions. Declaring first that in order to remember something, we must have perceived it first, he continues:
Memory is, therefore, neither perception or conception, but a state or affectation of one of these, conditioned by lapses of time. As already observed, there is no such thing as memory of the present while present; for the present is object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past. All memory, therefore, implies a time elapsed; consequently only those animals who perceive time remember, and the organ whereby they perceive time is also that whereby they remember.This is of course, quite logical, but also in the light of modern science quite wrong. I wrote a while back about the amygdala, which processes sensory inputs through the emotions first, before they are contextualized by temporal ordering. Emotional memory is not temporal, but imagistic. But Aristotle was on to that too.
Without an image thinking is impossible. There is in such activity as affectation identical with one in geometrical demonstrations. . . . Thus it is clear that the cognition of intellectual objects involves an image and the image is an affectation of the common sense. Thus memory belongs incidentally to the faculty of thought, and essentially it belongs to the primary faculty of sense-perception.The distinction here is fine, but sure. Memory is tied more closely to the senses than thought. That is its primary faculty, its effect on thought is secondary. Separating this out, Aristotle then gets at the core thing that separates the nature of human memory from animal memory, or “soul” memory as he describes it:
If asked of which among the parts of the soul memory is a function, we reply, manifestly of that part which imagination also appertains; and all objects of which there is imagination are also objects of memory, while those which do not exist without imagination are objects of memory incidentally.Thus, all animal memory would be incidental unless you think that animals share the capacity for imagination. This could be debated, because anyone who has had a pet knows that they seem to dream. But do they experience imagination in the waking state? Clearly, they do not experience the sort of temporal memories humans do, but there is perhaps a core of imagistic memory in there somewhere. Yeah, so I’m easily amused.
However, what really hit me was Aristotle’s constant references to the relationship of forgetting, perception, and the melancholic temperament. Aristotle proposes that humans are the only ones that deliberate on issues, the only ones who concern themselves with the future, but that contemplation of the future is in the now:
That the affectation is corporeal, i.e., that recollection is searching for an image in a corporeal substrate, is proved by the fact that some persons, when, despite the most strenuous application of thought, they have been unable to recollect, feel discomfort, which even thought they abandon the effort of recollection, persists in them nonetheless; and especially in those of melancholic temperament. For those are most powerfully moved by image. The reason why the effort of recollection is not under the control of their will is that, as those who throw a stone cannot stop it at their will when thrown, so he who tries to recollect the hunts sets up a process in a material part, in which resides the affectation.Or, to put that all in a more modern perspective from Henry Miller:
The mission of man on earth is to remember.
I don’t know where I thought I was going with all this, except to save that notion form Aristotle that memory, once started, is like throwing a stone. It is unstoppable. The remainder of his essay on memory, by the way, deals with such contemporary issues as getting a song stuck in your head. Of course, he blames it all on moisture. He was Greek after all. But also central is the role that imagination plays in the human memory. This is something that seems to have been lost by all the interpreters of Aristotle over the ages. That's why I like to go to the source. Memory as an affectation? Now there's a concept!
Canberra is nothing like Bakersfield. I’m relieved. Thanks Jonathon!
Of course, he raised another issue that I’m dying to write about. On the Road changed my life at 16, but The Americans also changed it at 18, and on top of that, Let us Now Praise Famous Men and American Photographs changed my life around 30. There is a tremendous chain of thought surrounding those books that I’m dying to let out. But it will have to wait until after the firestorm that is the first half of my week. Not to mention the recent article about Steinbeck that has me thinking about Horace Bristol, and my father, and other things.
But I can’t close out the day without mentioning the best confirmation of all: Girls Just Want to be Mean.
The team's conclusion was that girls were, in fact, just as aggressive as boys, though in a different way. They were not as likely to engage in physical fights, for example, but their superior social intelligence enabled them to wage complicated battles with other girls aimed at damaging relationships or reputations -- leaving nasty messages by cellphone or spreading scurrilous rumors by e-mail, making friends with one girl as revenge against another, gossiping about someone just loudly enough to be overheard. Turning the notion of women's greater empathy on its head, Bjorkqvist focused on the destructive uses to which such emotional attunement could be put.This coincides with what female friends have been telling me for years. There is a lot of scary stuff in this article. I’ve often had the feeling that girls are smarter than I am, but the specific application of those smarts is what scares me the most:
Unlike boys, who tend to bully acquaintances or strangers, girls frequently attack within tightly knit friendship networks, making aggression harder to identify and intensifying the damage to the victims. Within the hidden culture of aggression, girls fight with body language and relationships instead of fists and knives. In this world, friendship is a weapon, and the sting of a shout pales in comparison to a day of someone's silence. There is no gesture more devastating than the back turning away.I can agree with that.
Perhaps I should be happy that I have no relationships to be thwarted by right now? Nah, it’s too much fun dealing with everything else involved. Girls may be mean, but damn it, they’re fun!
I was a bit bored, so I took a look at the Daypop and Blogdex indexes to see what people were looking at. It seems like paranoia is perhaps the biggest cash-crop of the new millennium. Blaming it on the shrub-in-charge [sic] is grand sport. I don’t want to join in beating around the Bush, the sic makes me sick. I stay away from politics. I don’t understand how Nixon, Reagan, or any of the latest bumper-crop of idiots got elected. I don’t really have that much interest in it, because I’m far more interested in deeper human concerns. Besides, to steal Protagoras’ argument: “there is much to prevent one’s knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man’s life.”
The shifting nature of the massive community of online writers around the globe is of deeper abiding interest to me. But it’s been frustrating to figure out how to comment on it without resorting to epideictic. Praise or blame? Are these the only two options? In the grand scheme, no. However, when it comes to debate in a public forum this genre of discourse is the most natural. Thinking about the “pilgrims progress” on the Internet, I think this is just a healthy growth stage.
The branches of Roman rhetoric (stolen from Aristotle, of course) are marked with attention to kairos, the proper time and place for constructing an effective argument. Dr. Kleine suggested that it is helpful to connect the branches with places and times. In the case of epideictic, the place is the public square, and it is primarily concerned with the past. This notion seems to be played out in the obsessions with his and her stories of both blogging and the personalities to be found on the Internet, and it couldn’t be closer (at least for now) to the concept of a world-wide public square filled with hundreds of thousands of voices.
But the “branch” analogy is also useful in terms of thinking of it as a tree. Epideictic is the lowest row of branches on the tree. Just above the roots, it’s where the flowers bloom. The next set of branches, for the Romans, was the forensic. This type of rhetoric is most often connected with the courtroom, but its primary concern is justice vs. injustice. Its mode of persuasion is sometimes praise and blame, but not always. And its goal is a disposition in the present. Is it right or wrong? Though it looks to the past for its evidence, the mode of action moves firmly into the present. The venue is of a much more limited nature, and in the US system at least, includes a jury of peers rather than a mob. I would suggest that the growth of blogging circles, and group blogs like metafilter, are a move up the tree of discourse into the forensic.
At the top of the tree is deliberative discourse. Of course, the branches get thinner and shorter near the top of the tree. There isn’t much of this going on at this stage of development, I think. However, damn it all, I’ve landed myself back in politics. The domain of the deliberative is the legislature. Its mode of action is based in the present, but looking to the future. I don’t think “blogging about blogging” counts as deliberative discourse, it’s largely metacognitive epideictic. The point of deliberative discourse is to suggest a course of action for the future, to make plans and projections for a better future. The future, in that respect, looks pretty bleak. But the Internet is young, and it’s forcing a crisis due to the proliferation of epideictic discourse.
Daniel posted a terrifying narrative about a blogger who was fired from her job for expressing her opinion on her blog. A recent Wired story about defamation lawsuits that I found cruising blogdex was also scary. I’ve been enjoying the festival of voices, though most do little beyond praise or blame. The idea that we may be headed for a time where we have to look out for what we say in public places points out the failure of deliberative discourse in our time. It seems like a huge cluster-fuck to me.
I was watching Heartbreak Ridge on TNT this morning. Each time Clint Eastwood uttered the words “cluster-fuck” they were neatly changed to “cluster-flop” in a voiceover. It scares me most that one day the Internet might become like that, and that the utopian dreams of the metabloggers might be reduced to some arbitrary code of conduct bent on self-protection. Only if this “cluster-flop” is stopped can the real voices be heard. Time and time again, the majority of citizens have stood against censorship. I can only hope that this trend continues. But somewhere around half of my country voted for a president [sic] that seems hell bent on silencing dissenting voices both in this country, and around the globe. It’s too bad there isn’t more deliberation going on. I’m hoping this all won’t be a cluster-flop.
Loren invited me to comment on On the Road days ago, and I agreed with some disclaimers that should probably be voiced publicly. I read at least five or six Kerouac novels growing up and in my twenties. On the Road is the one that sticks out to me now, mostly because it was the first one I read. The memory of it is vague in comparison to things I’ve worked on more recently, but as I read his ongoing commentary I knew I would respond before he asked. I read Kerouac purely as a young reader, not as a critic. My critical tendencies are much stronger now and I knew I couldn’t suppress them anymore than he could. The danger of criticism is that it can slay your heroes.
Diane’s isolation of the themes of the book point out the problematic nature of women’s rights, sexual attitudes, and redemptive journeys in the post-war context. The rules were changing, and it could easily be argued that Kerouac missed the point of what real rebellion was about. The same critique was leveled against the Romantic poets by the Victorians nipping at their heels. The more I thought about it, the more I was drawn into the challenge that each new “generation” faces, and the problematic nature of the concept of generations.
Now that I have a deeper understanding of the ebb and flow of literary history, I thought it might be fun to wade from what I now think of as the “deep-end” back to the shallow, because in many ways I believe what Blake said: “Exuberance is Beauty.” Though I don’t spend much time thinking about these guys anymore, I think it’s possible to look at them critically without killing them.
The post which follows is my feeble attempt to draw on what I know best (the Romantics) to cast some light on the battle to revise the Beats. They weren’t politically shrewd or even stylistically astute. They were, however, energetic. And that energy is for me is the spirit of their age.
I believe in the worth of history. However, the historical perspective is troublesome because with every telling of the tale we cannot cease our compulsion to rewrite it in our own image, as we are now, or rather, as we would like it to be. Placing writers like Jack Keroauc in the larger context of constructs like “the Beat generation” limits them, but at the same time, illuminates their difference from the arbitrary constructs.
The troublesome concept of “generations” can be traced to the romantic essayist William Hazlitt. In his book The Spirit of the Age, he offers commentary and gross generalizations about his “generation” which are at once contradictory and comforting in their simplicity. For example, in his chapter on Coleridge he proposes:
The present is an age of talkers, and not of doers; and the reason is, that the world is growing old. We are far advanced in the Arts and Sciences, that we live in retrospect, and doat on past achievements. The accumulation of past knowledge has been so great, that we are lost in wonder at the height that it has reached, instead of attempting to climb or add to it; while the variety of objects distracts and dazzles the looker-on. What niche remains unoccupied? What path untried? What is the use of doing anything, unless we could do better than all those who have gone before us?And yet, Hazlitt concedes in his chapter on Byron that:
Lord Byron is dead: he also died a martyr to his zeal in the cause of freedom, for the last, best hopes of man. Let that be his excuse and his epitaph!The Spirit of the Age which Hazlitt seeks to contain includes those who were “talkers not doers” (like Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.), and those who were zealous champions of the cause of freedom and fought in battle (like Byron) or produced revolutionary pamphlets at the risk of their lives (like William Blake, Tom Paine, Percy Shelley, etc). The neat concept of history falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny. It could be argued that it is the process of youth to age which is the real distinction. Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth were all “revolutionary” in their youth and denied the martyrdom of dying young, they become objects of scorn in their old age.
Hazlitt’s case for William Godwin, using Wordsworth as a mouthpiece, points at the problem of perspectives that shift with age:
'Throw aside your books of chemistry,' said Wordsworth to a young man, a student in the Temple, 'and read Godwin on Necessity.' Sad necessity! Fatal reverse! Is truth then so variable? Is it one thing at twenty and another at forty? Is it at a burning heat in 1793, and below zero in 1814? Not so, in the name of manhood and of common sense! Let us pause here a little. Mr. Godwin indulged in extreme opinions, and carried with him all the most sanguine and fearless understandings of the time. What then? Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless? Is the very God of our idolatry all of a sudden to become an abomination and an anathema? Could so many young men of talent, of education, and of principle have been hurried away by what had neither truth nor nature, not one particle of honest feeling nor the least show of reason in it?'
I believe that retrospective critiques of Kerouac and others who sought to break the bounds of the weight of literary tradition, to find the spirit of their age, suffer greatly when examined through the framework they sought to overthrow. Because they sought to break through, however, they must be examined inside that matrix, which has moved on since the time they wrote. Did they capture a spirit, or merely expose their irreverence for the world to see? History is the final judge, jury, and executioner in these matters.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Kerouac’s belief, only the ultimate worth of a lifestyle built on restless movement and above all else, speed. Age tempers these notions: “When I was faster I was always behind,” as Neil Young says, or as the penultimate line in Easy Rider succinctly puts it, perhaps the best reflection of the sixties is: “We blew it.” As my father always said, "Hindsight is 20:20." Longshoremen philosopher Eric Hoffer declares reason why we feel compelled to start moving best: “The best impetus for moving forward is to have something to run away from.” Generalizations of history are good at describing the disenchantment, the "beaten" nature of the beats, and why they took their show on the road. The question addressed and left unanswered by Kerouac is: where do you run when there is no place left to go?
The only thing that remains is to revel in the trip itself. This is great advice when you are young, but age brings reflections on what you have left behind. On the Road cannot be read with that weight held in the mind. A free-flowing, stream of consciousness prose style is perhaps the only real contribution of Kerouac when viewed through the lens of age. However, to sense only that is to miss the spirit of freedom, a freedom from possibility which lies at the core of Kerouac (and perhaps Henry Miller too, from an earlier generation). The labels of Lost Generation or the later Beat Generation are shaky simplifications that don’t really hold up. But it’s the way that history deals with things.
Hazlitt's Wordsworth was astute: “Because those opinions were overcharged, were they therefore altogether groundless?” Wordsworth's question does not require an answer, for those who read only to revel in the freedom. Literature scholars are bound to attempt an answer, however. And the answer, in Kerouac’s case, is to perhaps just dodge and say that he was not groundless, just unrealized. He has stiff competition from the generations that came before and after when it comes to his worth as a literary figure. But there is no denying his importance as a central figure as a spirit of his age.
I revisited some memories of Keroauc from his close friends in the oral biography Jack’s Book. Alan Ginsberg relates their first meeting with William Burroughs:
So Jack and I made a formal visit to Bill, and I remember that he had copies of Yeats’ A Vision, which Lucien had been carrying around. Shakespeare, Kafka: The Castle or The Trial, The Castle I think; Korzybski’s Science and Santity, Spengler’s Decline of the West, Blake, a copy of Hart Crane, which he gave me and I still have, Rimbaud, Cocteau’s Opium. So those were the books he was reading, and I hadn’t read any of those. And he loaned books to us . . .Most of these books are on my shelf. It feels kind of weird, thinking that it is a writer’s job to overcome this weight and move the project forward. I think Kerouac and Ginsberg “moved the project forward” a bit, but only just a bit. The idolatry of my youth is gone, and now I look to all books as things I can use, but things I must overcome if I am to move on. I suspect Kerouac felt the same way, though he never seemed to get past the breakthrough phase into the realm of pure vision, in the way that Blake or Yeats did.
Perhaps though, it’s fitting that the spirit of this age be incomplete and unrealized. Perhaps that’s true of all the ages, and only history can find the neat closure that we so fervently crave. I think that the new pluralist trends are a good thing; there is no one spirit of the age, only spirits that we can seek to comprehend.
Yes, I know that Spirit of the Age is a Hawkwind song too. But Hazlitt said it first. Hazlitt's defense of Godwin would be the only sort of defense that I would offer for Kerouac, but this matters little to a young reader who would drink deeply of the speed, the movement, and the joy that is deeply conveyed with its dark side intact, in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Under 25? You must read On the Road. At least, if you have the flame of disenchantment within you. Who doesn't, when they are young?
I was surprised to find out yesterday that Houston is the fourth largest city in the US. I was so incredulous as a matter of fact, that I had to look it up. The 1990 census data confirmed it. Now Tom Waits' observation (during a SXSW concert) that people in Texas must be friendly, because they have all that space but choose to live together in big groups makes more sense. Scrolling through the list of city populations generated more surprises.
Bakersfield was number 97! Now that’s a shocker, I wouldn’t have even thought it was in the top 100. I’ve always thought of it as a small town. When my family moved there in the early sixties, I have a childhood memory of being fixated with two things as we drove into town: the “Sun Fun Stay Play” sign, which didn’t last long, and the population sign. It read 69,000.
Wow, I thought (I must have been four years old at the time). But compared to my house in the woods outside of Ojai, it did seem like a big city. Of course, as a teenager I had been to LA several times. Now that was a city. Bakersfield seemed like a wide spot in the road by comparison. Thinking of Kerouac lately, I realized that when he passed through it was probably more like 30,000 people.
The second shock was to find that Little Rock is number 96. I’m movin’ on up now. I got myself a de-luxe apartment on the west side. But, friends have been telling me how much Bakersfield has grown since I left (it was around 250,000 then). So I wondered if maybe the balance might have shifted, since Bakersfield was one of the fastest growing places in California when I left.
Shock number three. The 2000 figures show Bakersfield at 396,000. However, Little Rock must be growing faster. The 2000 figure is 548,000. I’m sure this includes North Little Rock, just across the river, which is a fairly substantial place. But damn, I never thought this place was that big either. So much for my small town feeling. I don’t suppose a half a million people qualify as a small town. But Little Rock still has something close to a small town mentality, though I confess that it's actually less "hickish" than Bakersfield.
There’s a price to be paid for this expansion. I was assaulted by a TV ad warning that Britney Spears is doing a concert here in the next few months. Sheesh. For laughs, I did a search. I wanted to see if she was playing Bakersfield. She wasn't. Don't I feel special now. I was also happy to find that if you do a google search for Britney Spears the second site listed is Britney's Guide to Semiconductor Physics. Thank god for link-weighting. It’s actually a serious site, with serious content. I think more fourteen-year olds should know the ins and outs of the lasers that play their compact disks. I would encourage as many links to this as possible so that it might even dethrone the “official” site!
Just for giggles, I had to look up the figures for Canberra— 313,000 according to the tourist web site. So, the capitol of that continent is smaller than Bakersfield? Now that does make for an interesting picture. Okay, so Sydney is twice the size of LA. . . that wasn’t the point. It’s just strange trying to picture places you haven’t been. I’m sure Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield, it just seemed like a funny thing to compare. Or, at least it would be funny if you’d ever been to Bakersfield.
Every city on earth is unique, with its own quirks. It cracked me up when I revisited the lyrics to Cities to catch the bit about Memphis— “I smell home cooking / its only the river, only the river.” Before I had been there, a friend here in Little Rock told me that there was something special about Memphis— “It’s the smell,” he said. Evidently, David Byrne agrees.
However, I must confess that this particular train of thought was triggered by a conversation with a West African native, Marcus, who goes to the university here. It seems that he came into the US through Tijuana, and ended up living in Burbank before moving to Arkansas. We were talking about how different it was here. Marcus was quick to proclaim: “this is the land of opportunity!” as he recruited me to come to an African drum festival on Saturday night. In Arkansas, this is a special event. In California, I could go see wild percussion any day of the week. I miss that part of it, really. But he’s right. It will all get here soon enough. But by then, I’ll probably be gone.
It’s still nearly impossible for me to think of Little Rock as a city. Though, if you photograph it just right, it looks like one.