June 2002 Archives


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Just a sentimental postcard

This 1972 Chevy has seen better days

This is the truck I learned to drive in. I felt like I had to preserve it somehow. Although it obviously was in a little better shape when I drove it. It made the trek from California to Oklahoma many times, before finally being laid to rest in the field across the street from my brother's house.

No need for flowers on this grave, it grows its own. There are more than a few memories for me on this bench seat. I can't see this lawn ornament without thinking of the relationship I began— and ended— in a blue Chevy truck.

I've still got the letters, somewhere. They were filled with honorable intentions.

Epistolatry vs. Oral Fixation

Now wait a minute (methinks TV doth protest too much— I suspect he enjoys the discussion as much as the rest).

Oh yes, wait a minute Mister Postman
Wait Mister Postman

Please Mister Postman, look and see
(Oh yeah)
If there's a letter in your bag for me
(Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why's it takin' such a long time
(Oh yeah)
For me to hear from that boy of mine

There must be some word today
From my boyfriend so far away
Please Mister Postman, look and see
If there's a letter, a letter for me

The lowly epistle is indeed a uniquely important variant form of the ever-metamorphosing grapholect. Examination of the syntagmatic features of letter-writing need not fall into the great divide that many misread into Ong’s orality theories, where phonocentrism is poised to pounce upon graphocentrism. I’m actually quite curious what we can learn from both. Kathleen Welch strongly describes the phonocentric primacy of television, and spends little time on the more graphocentric nature of web discourse. So, recalling the evolution of the letter is not at all spurious, though it requires careful qualification, as Turbulent Velvet assuredly has attempted.

Conversation can be simultaneously one-to-one and one-to-many. As TV pointed out, the early history of the letter showed a similar character. Trust is perhaps the largest problem involved in any form of discourse that attempts to stand in for face-to-face interaction. For the Greeks in 400BC, the letter was suspect. Euripides’ Phaedra is a powerful example of what happens when you believe what you read, instead of what you hear. In many reviewer's eyes, any attempt to discern the difference between aural truth, and written truth must privilege one over the other. Ong is usually read as privileging the “noble savageness” of oral constructions; when I read him, my impression was quite the opposite. It seemed to me that he privileged the rising levels of abstraction made possible by grapholects. Go figure. Welch blasts Havelock for being insensitive to women’s issues, and raises Ong to a new level of phonolatry. All of this actually matters very little to me. What matters most is how well the distinctions highlighted by each signifying practice mesh with blog discourse. One thing seems certain though: logocentrism cannot stand. The construction of reality through language is colored by nuances far outside the reach of words alone; it’s a matter of context.

The letter metaphor shines in that respect. Without external knowledge, most people get very little out of reading other people’s letters. The emergence of somewhat self-referential “blogging circles” points out the value-added nature of reading not only one, but many people who may respond to the common topoi. Letters score big regarding periodic, turn-taking behaviors where questions are raised and answered (still conversational, and yet not a conversation). One of the most common usages of letters was to pass along the juicy bits of gossip (also not unlike web behaviors) but where did this exchange of gossip take us? Into the novel. That’s where, I think, the usage of epistolary metaphors breaks down. Is blogging going to evolve into a huge group novel? I don’t see many signs of that. I suspect there is a limit to the complexity of blogging, largely due to its context-dependence. The focus on strictly graphic behaviors denies larger issues of syntagmatic construction which orality theories more directly address— these theories present, not an ephemeral packet, but instead direct insight into some rather counter-intuitive things about oral storytelling practice.

To justify my oral fixation, I thought I’d take a moment to summarize Ong’s defining tropes of orality, so that those who have been confused by the proximity of the term orality with notions of conversation might better understand what features I’m talking about. Oral discourse is (not the google-game):

Additive rather than subordinate (discussed by me on numerous occasions)

Aggregative rather than analytic (or, phrased another way, associative rather than dialectic)

Redundant or copious (Bloggers copious or redundant? Most of the ones I read are)

Conservative or traditionalist (resistant to change)

Close to the human lifeworld (Lanham thinks electronic writing is, and I agree)

Agonistically toned (Warblogging anyone?)

Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced (Blog as performance!)

Homeostatic (self-organizing communities anyone?)

Situational rather than abstract (take a look at a typical day on blogdex or daypop)

Of course, I’ve been thinking about all of these features of orality, and trying them on for size regarding blog discourse. None of this addresses the problems of public vs. private as well as the epistolary model. However, orality theory addresses other features which I think are poorly addressed by the letter-writing analogy. Expanding on all these points would take much more grapholecting than the typical attention span would allow, so I’ll stop here.

Welch addresses the “Great Divide” reading of orality theory quite nicely in her book. Nowhere do any of the primary researchers say that it’s an either/or proposition. There is, as Lanham would put it, an oscillation involved between all these signifying practices. "The Great Divide" is a creation of the critics of orality theory, not the theorists themselves— but then that is just my opinion, due to my preference for descriptive rather than prescriptive theory. Does orality theory describe the phenomenona reasonably well? I think it does.


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Looking for the missing women

Kathleen Welch’s tirades in Electric Rhetoric made me curious about the women missing from the “rhetorical canon.” So I’ve been on a bit of a mission. Aspasia of Miletus was next on my list. As usual, Aristophanes is one of the best (at least in the comic sense) resources regarding the ancient Greeks. She’s there, in Acharnians:

But then some young crapshooters got to drinking
and went to Megara and stole the whore Simaétha.
And then the Megarians, garlic-stung with passion,
got even by stealing two whores from Aspasia.
From this the origin of the war broke forth
on all the Greeks: from three girls good at blow-jobs.
I was looking at the original Greek text, curious about the word used for blow-job, laikastriôn. It seems that the online lexicon merely lists it as harlot, rather than listing it as a particular specialty. Surely the translator didn’t take license with the term, because so much of Aristophanes’ vocabulary is quite specific. For example pephusingômenoi, translated as “garlic-stung with passion” is listed in the lexicon as:
phusingoomai phu_singoomai, [phusinx] Pass. to be excited by eating garlic, properly of fighting cocks: hence the Megarians (who were large growers of garlic) are said to be odunais pephusingômenoi infuriated by vexations, Ar.
“Garlic-stung with passion” does sound better than the lexographer’s translation of the same phrase as “infuriated by vexations.” All in all though, it sounds like a desire thing to me. Evidently, growers of garlic had difficulty procuring blow-jobs by other means. This makes a certain perverted sense. But the outcome of this theft is what seems quite pertinent to present day politics.
And then in wrath Olympian Pericles did lighten and thunder and turn Greece upside-down, establishing laws that read like drinking-songs:

“Megarians shall be banned from land and markets and banned from sea and also banned from shore.”

Whereupon the Megarians, starving inch by inch, appealed to Sparta to help make us repeal the decree we passed in the matter of the whores.
This sort of victimization of the “other” (even if they do smell) jibes nicely with Ray’s thoughts on the function of groups to perpetuate homogeneity. We can’t have those garlic-inflamed folks stealing our blow-job queens, now can we? Laws that sound like drinking-songs? This all sounds too familiar.

What is also far too familiar is the reduction of Aspasia to a simple whore. Her oral powers seemed to extend quite a bit further than the bedroom. Socrates was impressed by her too. Obviously, she held Pericles in her sway, as Aristophanes so pointedly implies by blaming a war on her. The politics behind her situation seems quite interesting. What’s an educated girl from out of town to do? Socrates claims that she was an impressive rhetorician. One of most useful moves I made, in teaching research papers, was comparing them with a sales pitch. Obviously, “working girls” need strong sales skills, and Socrates (though it may have been tongue-in cheek) did seem more interested in other oral skills Aspasia possessed than the ones highlighted by Aristophanes.

Socrates’ interest, is noted as the only thing interesting about his dialogue Menexenus in the introduction of the Princeton edition. I’ve become acutely sensitive to the sort of minimalizing strategies employed by scholarly editors since my friend Dr. Levernier used a conservative American Lit anthology to display how women and writers of color were admitted grudgingly, and always with the damnation of faint praise. That drive to marginalize feminine voices is downright blatant in this edition:

The beginning is entertaining where Socrates talks about Aspasia who, he declared, has been teaching him a speech, a funeral oration, but all the rest is dullness unrelieved, not a characteristic of Plato.
Dullness unrelieved? I didn’t find it that way at all. The conjecture is that Aspasia had a great deal to do with Pericles Funeral Oration, a work full of pomp and nationalistic chest-thumping. Aspasia was Pericles’ mistress. However, the speech of Aspasia related by Plato through the voice of Socrates, even if it is a parody, reveals a great deal regarding her sophistic view of politics.

For government is the nurture of man, and the government of good men is good, and of bad men bad. And I must show that our ancestors were trained under a good government and for this reason, they were good, and our contemporaries are also good, among whom our departed friends are to be reckoned.

Then as now, and indeed always, from that time to this, speaking generally, our government was an aristocracy— a form of government which receives various names, according to the fancies of men, and is sometimes called democracy, but is really an aristocracy or government of the best which has the approval of the many.

For kings we have always had, first hereditary and then elected, and authority is mostly in the hands of people, who dispense offices and power to those who appear to be deserving of them. Neither is a man rejected from weakness or poverty or obscurity of origin, nor honored by reason of the opposite, as in other states, but there is one principle— he who appears to be wise and good is a governor and ruler.

The choice of words is quite careful. Aspasia notes that everything is based on appearances, and goes further to say that the state recognizes “no superiority except in the reputation of virtue and wisdom.” Obviously, as a woman whose reputation was often slandered, her perception that reputation is everything is hardly surprising.

The biting mistrust of women shines in the opening and closing of this dialogue— the only parts deemed worthy of Plato by the editors— particularly in Menexenus’ closing comment about Aspasia’s speech:

Yes, Socrates, I am very grateful to her or to him who told you, and still more to you who have told me.
The careful “him or her that told you” shows the incredulity of Menexenus regarding the source of such wisdom. It couldn’t be a woman. Or, as the modern editor’s imply, if Socrates shows respect for a woman, then it couldn’t have been authored by our golden boy, Plato. Perhaps it is this lack of respect, even by the female editor of the Princeton Plato, Edith Hamilton, which makes our laws read like drinking songs. Those smelly, passionate Megarians must be dealt with! And a madam from Athens can't have much of anything interesting to say.

Personally, I think Aspasia describes the nature of government far better than Pericles in his Funeral Oration.

Talking about sex again

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“Oh, but sir I have only honorable intentions toward your daughter.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about desire and intentionality. I like Dennett and Haugeland’s reduction of the term intentionality to “aboutness.” So, what’s it all about? The narratives that surround us generally point to one easy resolution of the problem, as this bit of dialogue from Finding Forester declares:

“You mean women will want to sleep with me if I write a book?”

“Women will want to sleep with you if you write a bad book.”

This reminded me of an episode, a long time ago. I was hanging out with some friends in a house that doubled as a practice space for a band. Larry V., one of the best funk bass players I’ve ever known, was strolling around the room practicing slaps and pops on his bass.

“I’m just searching for that perfect tone— the sound that will cause all the panties in the room to drop at once.”

Larry was unusual in his honesty. He knew why he started playing the bass— to get laid. I think that’s why I really enjoyed hanging out with the funk crowd for a while. They had few illusions. While funk can be ridiculed as being simplistic and lacking conceptual depth, I much prefer funk to rap. Rap seems to be more about power, whereas funk is purely about sex; the power relations are submerged beneath a much sexier exterior. It’s not as much a strutting, justifying “I’m the man,” as it is “I’m the man who wants.” Few professional people are as honest as Larry V. about the overwhelming desire to get laid that drives most people to pursue certain skills.

For some, it might be just making money because they believe that money will get you laid. For others, it might be something more artistic because I (and I suspect a lot of people) believe that art is a way of touching people. And what is the desire to touch people if not a sexual desire? It might seem horribly reductive, but ultimately, I think most of human intentionality can be reduced to a desire for sex.

Reading “The Critic as Host” by J. Hillis Miller helped me put a new perspective on this whole language intentionality enterprise. Miller argues that the relationship between critic and text is much like a parasite / host relationship, where the symbiosis depends on the presence of both. Texts are, in a sense, irreducible in that they cannot be fully explained by any means. There is always a residue. Miller sets into opposition the forces of metaphysics and nihilism as a more complex, sexual, parasite / host dynamic. Reduction of metaphysics always moves toward nihilism, which in turn can never completely consume the desire for transcendence. There is always a residue which remains, which seeks to reconstitute itself.

I have reflected in the past about the transience of sexual memory, how it fades so quickly that we have no choice but to repeat the experience as often as possible— there is no such thing as a perfect and transcendent union, only the search for its possibility. This search is perhaps the defining aboutness of the human condition. In Miller’s perception, there is always a residue after the act that drives us to repeat it. Part of that imperfection may lie in language itself.

The play of substitutions in language can never be a purely ideal interchange. This interchange is always contaminated by its necessary incarnation, the most dramatic form of which is the bodies of lovers. On the other hand, lovemaking is never a purely wordless communion or intercourse. It is in its turn contaminated by language. Lovemaking is a way of living, in the flesh, the aporias of figure. It is also a way of experiencing the way language functions to forbid the perfect union of lovers. Language always remains, after they have exhausted or even annihilated themselves in an attempt to get it right, as the genetic trace starting the cycle all over again.

The persistence of desire assures the continuance of the species. and desire fills our intentionality. But it seems locked in a paradox of non-disclosure. We mustn’t talk about the real intention behind our words. To attempt to teach language skills is in effect to teach the survival skills of humanity. How is this possible without dealing with the language of desire? No matter how often we wash the sheets, that curious stain begs to reappear.

Why isn’t sex an “honorable” intention?

Walker Evans, Pt. 10

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When Walker Evans entered the circle of Muriel Draper in 1931, a new set of problems arose.

Walker Evans, Muriel Draper's apartment 1931

Walker Evans entree into the sophisticated world of the Draper salon brought with it certain hazards. He seems to have made a hit with a number of homosexual and bisexual men who regularly frequented Muriel’s evenings. Kirsten, in his diaries, routinely recorded the episodes he witnessed and those in which Muriel reported on the general assault against Evans’s masculine virtue.

There was a case of an aspiring young member of the American diplomatic corps, an intimate of Jean Cocteau’s, who, high on drugs, took Walker out for dinner “and horrified him by acting camp and taking dope which he got in Harlem and which he decided was half talcum-powder after all. He would scream at the rails of the elevated and tell them to stop. He made a pass at Walker and was generally difficult.”

On a different occasion another of Muriel’s young blades had been so attracted to Evans that when he finally took the plunge of asking him for lunch, he did it such a “transparently flirtatious and ass-humping” manner that he was no longer attracted. Muriel, bemused, commented on “the subtle and powerful influence that Walker Evans exerted on all of us, mainly the mysterious quality that he projected— did he know his power or not?”

Beyond the hints provided by James Mellow’s biographical retelling, it seems that there was a certain power that Evans gained through mystery— through careful control of context and presentation.

Evans effectively decontextualized the depression in America

A Love Story

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Walker Evans had women troubles too.

“A Love Story” perhaps reveals a bit too much about his attitudes


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CV (as per Ray Davis). Okay, I'll play too.

The Ox

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From a wistle-stop in Arkansas

one of the last times I used a real camera for something: John Entwistle at Juanita's in LR, Arkansas

R.I.P., as one of his album covers once said

Aixo era y no era

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Aixo era y no era

Reading Paul Ricoeur’s “The Metaphoric Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling” triggered more weird thoughts. A return to STC “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith” is in order. Imagination was, in Coleridge’s view an incredible power which combines things to constitute our world. Life itself was a force, pressing outward towards God with a power that creates a tenuous stasis, where the primary imagination synthesizes the world we cognize. His world view was built on faith, and it seems natural that he would also summon faith as a metaphor for poetic creation. Today, though, I started thinking about the suspension.

Suspension can be read as a cessation of activity. Or, more scientifically, it can be the implication of great motion, as particles are swirled about, suspended in solution. Without motion, the particles settle out in stratified layers underneath. Hence, the act of poetic faith, may also be read not as total belief but as a Brownian motion of particles, set into play through the disruption of disbelief. It remains to determine how to best read “shadows”— there is the Platonic bias, of course, against (re)presentation— but there is also the possibility of reading in these shadows, relations with the objects that cast them.

Ricoeur argues for a constitutive function in metaphor. Teasing out Richard’s tenor and vehicle, Ricoeur pushes these characteristics into the labels of quasi-verbal and quasi-imagistic function. Shadows, viewed as quasi-imagistic quantity are flat, two-dimensional, and opaque. Viewed quasi-verbally, shadows are, as in Hume’s conception of imagination, faint impressions of reality. However, thinking of Coleridge’s synthetic world view, shadows are indeed constitutive as they preserve the contour, although distorted, of a real and palpable world. Relations remain intact.

The quasi-verbal character of metaphors is described by Ricoeur as predicative assimilation. This is the function of proportional metaphors, metaphors by analogy which have little in the way of quasi-imagistic content. Humans communicate by comparison with other known relations (predicates), and these comparisons become assimilated in the synthetic powers of the imagination. We constitute new relations from preexisting ones, at the cerebral level.

The quasi-imagistic character of metaphors is instead a more sensual relation. We feel physically, a connection with the image that has been planted in our consciousness. Ricoeur feels that there is not a direct connection between these conflicting levels of metaphor, but instead a structural analogy between them. Though metaphor is indeed a split reference, the component parts are not extrinsic to the semantic function of metaphor, but intrinsic.

The deep feeling lost in the Platonic shadow is a fundamental part of the construction and identification that all humans feel through metaphor. Desire cannot be removed from meaning, in order to explain it. Shadows both are and are not. Reproduction and repetition changes things, but perhaps some structural analogies remain intact.


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there's always another way of looking at it--- see yesterday's photograph for a clue.

The great and continuing nuisance perpetuated by the term “point of view” is that it does nothing to discourage the conflation and confusion of two distinct aspects of narrative practice. Those two separate aspects are:

1. The orientation we infer to be that from which what gets told is told

2. The individual we judge to be the immediate source and authority for whatever words are used in the telling.

Those two aspects have been summarized in the two distinct questions “Who sees?” and “Who speaks?”

Now of course in many narratives, orientation and discourse-authorship are sourced in a single individual. But speaking / thinking and seeing need not come from the same agent. We need to allow for cases where another person sees or has seen.

Michael J. Toolan Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction

Toolan uses orientation, rather than Genette's focalization to describe the same distinction in narrative practice. His reasoning is close to I.A. Richards de-visualizing of metaphor. Focalization is a nearly photographic term, just like “point of view,” and carries with it visual metaphors. Toolan violates his own disclaimer that orientation need not be visual, when he summarizes the aspects. “Who sees?” could also be paraphrased as “Who hears?” or “Who feels?”

I think the core confusion rests in the repetitive who? Is orientation a function of identity? If it is, then the collapse of these distinctions by those dreadful Anglo-Americans is entirely justified. However, it occurs to me that the conflation rests on a perception of unary identity. The collapse of these terms might be more of a quasi-romantic world view, rather than an Anglo-American one. Explosion of the quasi-romantic self into a multicultural social-self, motivated by a land of whats as much as a land of whos, better supports the distinction. The question of what, rather than who forces a particular orientation might be more fruitful. We need not infer an identity for a potential agent, as much as an expected response to the whatness of the orientation based on cultural more than individual proclivities.

When I quote people, or images, I do so not with the expectation that they reveal much about who sees or hears the kernal of truth I do, but rather that they reveal a certain position, or orientation if the meaning of the citation is coincident with something, not in an individual, but in a life-experience or cultural background. Is this the same as identity or personality? I don't think so.

There is, in most of what I write, a sort of expectation of limited overlap in orientation with those who would choose to read me. However, there is no expectation of overlaps in identity. Separating orientation from identity seems crucial, and the locus of activity need not be visually metaphoric. In a certain sense, orientation is often conveyed by repetitive tropes of citation and response, where the currency is a shifting cultural mythology, based on stories told and retold— each time with a subtle shift in orientation. What motivates the shift in orientation seems to be more deeply of concern than the who, which separately gives the narrative its authority, that is, if Genette's distinction is to be worthwhile.

Rather than just a simple distinction in character function, I think this separation might also be made in supposedly monologic discourse. The schizophrenic nature of deep monologues, betrays a separate universe of programmed cultural responses— orientations — which should be considered as covalent, and yet not equivalent, to identity. Zooming in on them presents a certain seductive beauty, which exists within each identity, and yet is not identity.

Repetition changes things. Not so much because the repetition is filtered through identity, but because it is filtered through context and orientation. These aspects of narrative behavior seem very important. Social deixis seems to be more easily determined by focalization, rather than identity. I think conflating them is a mistake.

Myrtle Memories

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Another Song from STC

a later portrait, for a later poem
Through veiled in spires of myrtle-wreath,
Love is a sword which cuts its sheath,
And through the clefts itself has made
We spy the flashes of the blade!

But through the clefts itself has made
We likewise see Love’s flashing blade,
By rust consumed, or snapped in twain;
Only hilt and stump remain.

Something tells me that besides being so opium addled he was repeating himself, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was slightly bitter regarding marriage. The myrtle-wreath wasn’t kind to him. I prefer the epigram he used as preface for love poems in his collected works: “Love, always a talkative companion.”

In many ways does the full heart reveal
The presence of the love it would conceal;
But in far more th’ estranged heart lets know
The absence of love, which yet it fain would shew.

The ironic tension between the title and the epigram speaks volumes regarding the problem of conjugal desire. Silence (as anyone who has ever been married can tell you) does speak with intense volume. It occurs to me that I was living on Myrtle Street in Bakersfield, California, when it blew my mind.


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Wards Flowers and Gifts, Danville, Arkansas-- no relation.


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Superman (II) was flying when I woke up.

With Lois Lane on his back, far away at the North Pole, Superman renounces his power. The fog lifted from my eyes to reveal some basic tropes of American culture. Power demands secrecy. Love prefers disclosure. Love is incompatible with power. Exposure = weakness. And the grand moral of them all, ‘tis better to be powerful in pseudonymity, than a groveling weakling— even if it means giving up on love.

A divisive economics, to be sure: not unlike the modernist division between form and content, or better still, the division between explanation and understanding. The distanciation between text and author fits in the same sort of binary logic. Texts have power— authors have only love. I write that, reflecting on Diotima’s thoughts on love in Plato’s Symposium. Love is the desire for immortality; in a real sense, literature stems from this same fountain. Beginning students of literature resist explanation of the text, favoring instead understanding of the author. They resist because they seem to believe that understanding (love) is incompatible with explanation (power). They resist mapping the lines of power behind a text, as instructors flex their muscles, proclaiming that power is the best.

The problematic part is desire. I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I really enjoyed the book until the teacher explained it.” In “Explanation and Understanding,” Paul Ricoeur has brought me closer to what’s going on. It’s the difference between cause and motive. Explanation is a fairly scientific pursuit, which reveals the causes behind actions. There doesn’t have to be a motive behind a causally related sequence. A text can be explained in terms of effects and their causes, which may or may not be motivated by the nebulous construction of an author behind that text. Indeed, in New Critical thinking, questioning intentionality is strictly verboten. Explaining things concentrates solely on causes, not motives. Desire is something that exists completely outside the text, and lust is pushed into a Victorian closet.

Understanding, on the other hand, requires that questions of motive be addressed. Communication is an intentional act. We bring the sex-toys out of the closet and dress them up. Understanding is built upon a flirtation with belief, a surrender to the world constructed by the text, a slow seduction by the author which pulls you into his world as you imperfectly reconstruct it. It’s no wonder why students resist explanation when it is reduces that carefully constructed world to a web of causality. Causality is not nearly as sexy as motive.

Motive is force, but motive is not synonymous with power— motive springs from desire, and desire, often from powerlessness. There are two contentious desires: the desire for power, and the desire for love. Are they as incompatible as our myths proclaim? Must the empathy which love brings be buried in order to make the story acceptable?

The reader’s interest is addressed, not to so-called underlying laws, but to the turn taken by this singular story. Following a story is an activity that is entirely specific, by which we unceasingly anticipate a subsequent course of events and an outcome and adjust our anticipations as the story progresses, until they coincide with the actual outcome. Then we say we have understood.

This starting point of understanding differs from that proposed by the theory of empathy, which completely overlooks the specificity of the narrative element in the story recounted as well as the story followed. This is why a theory that bases understanding on the narrative element better enables us to account for the passage from understanding to explanation. Whereas explanation appeared to do violence to understanding taken as the immediate grasp of the intentions of others, it naturally serves to extend understanding taken as the competence to follow a narrative.

For a narrative is seldom self-explanatory. The contingency that combines acceptability summons questions, interrogation. Thus, our interest in what follows— “and then?” asks the child— carries over to our interest in reasons, motives, causes— “why?” asks the adult. The narrative therefore has a lacunary structure, such that the why proceeds spontaneously from the what. But in return the explanation has no autonomy. Its advantage and its effect are to allow us to follow the story better and further when the first-order spontaneous understanding fails.

Ricoeur, “Explanation and Understanding”

As I see it now, it seems that Psychology is the land of “who,” Philosophy is the land of “what,” Science is the land of “where,” Literature is the land of “when,” Theology is the land of “why,” and Rhetoric is the land of “how.” Explanation and understanding both seem contingent on how narratives work. Maybe it’s just my dirty-mind at play, but I feel certain that desire has a lot to do with it. This question seems inadequately addressed by all three of these disciplines, due to a residual Puritan ethic which forces sex out of schools, and into the closets where some think it belongs. But I think there can be no real explanation or understanding without addressing just what makes some texts, and authors, sexier than others.

Now, where did I put that kryptonite? That chaste myth of the American Superman has got to go!

Just a thought

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Guilt by association.

I pulled out a tape I hadn't listened to in a long time on this last trip— Brighten the Corners by Pavement. Something alarming struck me. I don't really care that much for “stream of consciousness” writing. I think that it’s a misnomer for the way that consciousness works. It’s more like a lake that pebbles skip across, leaving elliptical ripples with each idea that crosses it. The idea that consciousness might stream also implies that it is coming from somewhere, and going somewhere. In my case, I know that is seldom true. Usually, ideas usually skip across, with the force of a slap or a kiss, depending on the angle of attack and force behind them.

An idea, just like lunch, is never free— so I resist “free association” as well. There can only be association, which is directly plonked in your path, or the glancing dance of sidearm throws. It scared me to think that somehow, lately, I’m starting to write rambles down a shandy lane like songs I’ve heard. I suppose it’s a glancing thing, depending on how you inflect.

A welcome to my friends:
This house is a home and a home's where I belong
Where the feelings are warm and the foundations are strong
If my soul has a shape, well, then it is an ellipse
And this slap is a gift
'Cause your cheeks have lost their lustre
You know, your cheeks have lost their lustre
You know, your cheeks have lost their lustre
You know, your cheeks have lost their lustre, lustre, lustre, lustre
Take it back -- send return out of time
Tape machine needs to be aligned

Aloha means goodbye, and also hello -- it's in how you inflect
Put the bark in the dog, and you've got a guardian
When the capital's S, it is followed by a T -- and it's probably me
And the tones are grouped in clusters
You know, the tones are grouped in clusters
Well the tones are grouped in clusters
You know the tones are grouped in clusters, clusters, clusters, clusters
Take it back -- kiss me into the past
Lately never gonna last

“Blue Hawaiian”

Thank you, Stephen Malkmus.


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Danville, Arkansas

What wounds me are the forms of the relation, its images; or rather, what others call form I experience as force. The image— as the example of the obsessive— is the thing itself. The lover is thus an artist; and his world is in fact a world reversed, since in it each image is its own end (nothing beyond the image).

(A Lover's Discourse, 133)

Hardcore Theoria

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Hardcore Theoria

For me, things always seem to reduce themselves to position and desire. Tom's recent question, drawn from an insightful reading of the article Kierkegaard’s “Mystery Of Unrighteousness” In The Information Age, resonates:

Weinberger offers the vision of a more intimate communion, via the Net, liberated from the tiresome vapidity of the public as media-construct. But if Kierkegaard were to charge that such intimacy is still an evasion of the concrete responsibilities of the face-to-face encounter?
Possible resolution of this question can be addressed in two ways. As I've argued before, the deixis of a speaker is a key concern. Without an implicit positioning of the speaker, the utterance cannot be decoded adequately. This to me, is the central problem that causes ambiguity on the web, rather than the larger concerns of identity. Kierkegaard is really on target, regarding its ties to face-to-face interaction. But I also like Weinberger's theorizing regarding the growth of consubstantiality due to the indirect, pointed nature of web discourse.

Exploring some finely tuned linguistic assumptions points out one potential reason for demoting Kierkegaard. From the perspective of semantic or pragmatic analysis of discourse, deictic expressions are anchored to specific points in a communicative event. According to Lyons:

The grammaticalization and lexicalization of deixis is best understood in relation to what may be termed the canonical situation of utterance: this involves one-one or one-many, signaling in the phonic medium along with the vocal-auditory channel, with all the participants present in the same actual situation able to see one another and to perceive the associated non-vocal paralinguistic features of their utterances, and each assuming the role of sender and receiver in turn . . .There is much in the structure of languages that can only be explained on the assumption that they have developed for communication in face-to-face interaction.
The problem in analyzing web discourse is that the “canonical situation of utterance” represents a space where all face-to-face bets are off. Consequently, the function of deixis is even more complex. The idea of “concrete responsibilities” is remote, in a world which exists only as words on a screen. However, the paralinguistic features of utterances are still intact, and struggling for resolution in a situation where there is only a recent canon of web writing to draw from regarding appropriateness behaviors. In an important sense, we are adrift in a sea of texts, with little in the way of tradition to build from. The closest analogous situation, I think, is in the rise of print culture in the 18th century. But it is dangerous to rely on history alone, to explain the problem of deixis on the web.

There is another way of looking at this positioning problem: through the lens of desire. Few people have looked as closely at that problem as Roland Barthes:

I am caught in a double discourse, from which I cannot escape. On the one hand, I tell myself: suppose the other, by some arrangement of his own structure, needed my questioning? Then wouldn’t I be justified in abandoning myself to the literal expression, the lyrical utterance of my “passion”? Are not excess and madness my truth, my strength? And if this truth, this strength ultimately prevailed?

But, on the other hand, I tell myself: the signs of this passion run the risk of smothering the other. Then should I not, precisely because of my love, hide from the other how much I love him? I see the other with a double vision, sometimes as object, sometimes as subject; I hesitate between tyranny and oblation.

Thus I doom myself to blackmail: if I love the other, I am forced to seek his happiness; but then I can only do myself harm: a trap; I am condemned to be a saint or a monster: unable to be the one, unwilling to be the other: hence I tergiversate: I show my passion a little.

(A Lover’s Discourse, 41-2)
The reluctance to reveal one’s identity, one’s position, one’s deixis, can also be taken as a sign of love. It is the dual position of lovers, who both desire to reveal themselves, and to hide as a sign of their mad love in a new, exciting, and desirous situation where they now can meet the world, through their words. Position, and desire, are complicated indeed. Weinberger's utopian optimism need not be dismissed at the first introduction of fear into the equation. There are many kinds of fear, and many of them are proudly positioned at the forefront of new desires. All the same, it’s hard to dance with a partner when you don’t know where they are. I suppose I prefer to read the anchor position, the defining social situation on the web, as closer to the perverse logic of love rather than fear.

I suspect that Kierkegaard’s worry that fear is a flaw is largely unfounded. Without the dangerous exhilaration provided by fear, love would not be as strong. And the distanciation brought out by anonymity and pseudonymity could be just another part of the lovers dance, as it flirts with the possibility of new social situations. Sometimes the road is dark, and people hesitate to show the full force of their desire.

Go West Young Man!

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Go west, young man-- the view looking west on Arkansas Highway 10, heading for Oklahoma.

More Eliza Haywood

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More from Eliza Haywood

How glorious a Privilege has Man beyond all other sublunary Beings! who, tho’ indigent, unpitied, forsaken by the World, and even chain’d in a Dungeon, can, by the Aid of Divine Contemplation, enjoy all the Charms of Pomp, Respect, and Liberty! — Transport himself in Idea to whatever Place he wishes, and grasp in Theory imagin’d Empires!

Unaccountable it is, therefore, that so many People find an Irksomeness in being alone, tho’ for never so small a Space of Time! — Guilt indeed creates Perturbations, which may well make Retirement horrible, and drive the self-tormented Wretch into any Company to avoid the Agonies of Remorse; but I speak not of those who are afraid to reflect, but of those who seem to me not to have the Power to do it.

. . .

Conversation, in effect, but furnishes Matter for Contemplation;— it exhilerates the Mind, and fits it for Reflection Afterward:— Every new thing we hear in Company raises in us new Ideas in the Closet or on the Pillow; and as there are few People but one may gather something from, either to divert or improve, a good Understanding will, like the industrious Bee, suck out the various Sweets, and digest them in Retirement.

. . .

To know ourselves, is agreed by all to be the most useful Learning: the first Lessons, therefore, given us ought to be on that Subject.

The Female Spectator, Book IV (1745)

I do dearly love to suck out sweets, though I sometimes tire of studying alone. I'm too young for retirement.

Walker Evans, Pt. 9

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Walker Evans, Truro, Mass, 1930Walker Evans in the De Luze cottage

Walker Evans visited Truro, Massachusetts, in 1930 and stayed in the home of a family named De Luze, rented by his friend Ben Shahn. In the cottage of this Portuguese fishing family, his mature vision really began to take shape.

Had a wonderful dream last night. Where in hell do all those details come from. Really, literature, all the greatest descriptions I know are so much watery smudge to the least of my dreams. I suppose the best about dreams is the abolition of time. After one like last night's I spend the day tasting the tail ends of lovely unearthly moods without a headache. I think my powers lie mostly there, in dreams.

Walker Evans, Letter to Hanns Skolle, May 13, 1930

Evans' photographs of the De Luze cottage mark a profound turning point in his career, not because they were particularly successful, but because they show Evans' deepening dream detail. Though interest in the mundane is common among modernists, it's the complexity of detail that sets Evans apart. These photographs are a bridge between densely formalist experiments, and later photographs which show both this richness of detail, and the compositional complexity of Evans' early work. Life is found in details.


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Reelin' em in

just another sign of the times

Pocola, Oklahoma, where my parents live, is just another one of those highway towns. It's sort of a suburb of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, but not really. It has more in common with the little country towns I've been posting pictures of than the “big city” of Ft. Smith.

Fishing is big there. My father was a fisherman. I never got interested in it, and neither did my brothers. None of us could stomach cleaning them. Fish has lots of associations for me. As I lay down reading my book my first night in Pocola, I noticed a tiny toy kerosene lamp on the bedside table. I recognized it. The little yellow and red streaked lamp was distinctive; I’ve never seen another one like it past childhood. It came from a little curio shop in Bridgeport, California, high in the Sierras where dad used to fish.

Mom remembered trying to make me into a fisherman. They bought me a nice new reel using S&H green stamps. I walked off and left it on the bank of a stream somewhere near Bridgeport. Dad wandered the mountainsides up there, until they fenced the meadows and prohibited fishing. I never did much fishing; I just wandered.

All my wandering lately has given me some bald tires. Waiting around the Walmart in Ft. Smith while getting some fresh tires installed, I was confronted with another connotation of fish on a T-shirt I hadn't seen before:

If it smells like fish— eat it!
Words can be a tricky thing. I suspect I should reel myself in.

AKMA's article on Biblical Interpretation posted while I was away converges with my reading in Pocola

The Mammy Nuns

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De white boy troubles!a strange creature called a Mammy Nun

Straining my way through Electric Rhetoric by Kathleen Welch, still. There is some great stuff in the book, but it is positively buried by lame academic schema writing. Attack! Attack! Attack!

But there is a bright side. I’ve now found confirmation that I indeed grew up in a cardboard hut. For some reason, it reminded my of Frank Zappa’s Thingfish and those strange mutations known as the “Mammy-Nuns.”

Looks like y’ done putty good heahh, HARRY-AS-A-BOY! I sees ya’ growin’ up like a weed, axmodently reproducin’ YOUSEFF ‘n evvythang.

Done found some low-rent housin’ in a one-dimensional cardbode nativity box on some Italian’s funt lawn . . . bunch o’ crab-grass underneath de off-spring fo quick and easy sanitatium . . .shit! Y’all provvly be savin’ up for yo first LAVA LAMP putty soon!

Welch has some nice twists in her writing though. I particularly liked her definition of a HUT: “Household Using Television”

For some reason, I was talking to my mother about language acquisition; she told me some stuff about myself that I had forgotten. I did spend a lot of time in front of the T.V. But, somewhere in the mid-seventies, my focus shifted to 12-inch cardboard sleeves stuffed with petroleum buy-products. I was seduced by sound-patterns. I started collecting piles of record albums.

I think that the additional mountains of cardboard to my nativity hut changed me deeply

Lake Maumelle

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I’m back.

Just cruising down Highway 10

Someone asked me a few months back, after I posted the pictures of a bridge across the Arkansas River, if there were any lakes nearby. As I was driving home late this afternoon, I thought I’d snap a view from the side of my car about fifteen minutes from my apartment. This is Lake Maumelle, the reservoir for Little Rock, Arkansas. Water quality here is near the highest in the US, especially compared to other metropolitan areas. We don’t drink from the river.

This lake (one of many nearby) is actually larger than it appears from here.


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Back to Pot-eau

Another trip back to the sticks for me. Now, I get to play garage-door opener repairman. I'm wiser now though, I'm taking the back-roads.

Since I'll no doubt accumulate more snaps along the way, I thought I'd leave some shots of the big-city metropolis Poteau, Oklahoma, that I took on the last trip. No appreciable immigration problems here, this burgeoning little spot is perhaps one of the nerve-centers of Eastern Oklahoma.

The presence of the Walmart Supercenter there pretty much guarantees it. Not to mention Carl Albert University, and the Pansy Kid Middle School. I've often wondered about that one. Named after one of those famous pioneer ladies, I wonder what it must be like to say— “Oh, I went to Pansy Kid school.” But then, I'm easily amused.

They just completed construction of a huge freeway interchange just on the outskirts. It's a four-lane cloverleaf that any big city would be proud of. Of course, the roads that feed into this couple of miles of concrete glory are all two-lane potholed back-roads. You're driving along, and all of a sudden— Freeway! But, it only lasts for about three miles in the shadow of the “World's Highest Hill.”

The downtown is what obsesses me though.

Everyone should know Poteau (correctly pronounced “Poe-toe”). It's a place where the downtown screams— “nevermore.”

The Female Spectator

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Another take on An Ancient Scandal

The idle prentice betrayed by his whore and taken in a  night cellar with his accomplice-- an illustration to a proverb? --Hogarth, 1747
In order to be deceived as little as possible, I, for my own part, love to get as well acquainted as I can with an Author, before I run the risque of losing my Time in perusing his Work; and as I doubt not but most People are of this way of thinking, I shall, in imitation of my learned Brother of ever precious Memory, give some account of what I am, and those concerned with me in this Undertaking; and likewise of the chief Intent of the Lucubrations hereafter communicated that the Reader, on casting his eye over the first four or five Pages, may judge how far the Book may, or not be qualified to entertain him; and either accept, or throw it aside as he thinks proper: And here I promise, that in the Pictures I shall give of myself and Associates, I will draw no flattering Lines, assume no Perfection that we are not in reality possessed of, nor attempt to shadow over any Defect with an artificial Gloss.

As Proof of my Sincerity, I shall, in the first place, assure him that for my own Part I never was a Beauty, and am now very far from being young: (a Confession he will find few of my Sex ready to make:) I shall also acknowledge, that I have run through as many Scenes of Vanity and Folly as the greatest Coquet of them all— Dress, Equipage, and Flattery, were the Idols of my Heart.— I should have thought that Day lost which did not present me with some new Opportunity of shewing myself. —My Life, for some Years, was a continuous Round of what was then called Pleasure, and my whole Time engrossed by a hurry of promiscuous Diversions.

The Female Spectator (from Book One)

Not much is known about Eliza Haywood, The Female Spectator. She told so many conflicting lies about her life, and exists in so few records that it becomes impossible to sort it all out. She published her paper from 1744-46, and was as big of a liar as Swift, while covering her tracks even better. But, dear readers, you may recall my citation of Lanham’s concept that Western civilization is built on one golden rule: “Be sincere, whether you mean it or not!”

{as well as notice some serious literacy-fueled hypotaxis, goin' on!}

Nuages and Nuances

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Nuages and Nuances

Jill has pointed out a nuance that I left quite cloudy. I was using “and then . . .” in a sense identical with the drive-through scene in Dude Where’s My Car, not as an implicit causality. The transformation in that scene does move toward causality, and that’s when the anger really heats up, ending in the destruction of the drive-through speaker. Something like this:

I’ll have a coke.

And then . . .

Oh, and a burger, some fries . . .

And then . . .

a frostie

And then . . .

That’s it.

And then . . .

That’s all.

And then . . .

You give me my food and I drive away

And then . . .


Are a burger, some fries, a coke, and a frostie causally related? No way dude! Is driving away? Yes, dudes and dudettes. Paratactic in the Webster’s sense, is adjacency without a coordinating conjunction. Paratactic, in the linguistic sense I was using it in, is:

Adjacency with equal syntactic relevance, with or without a causal relation, which may or may not include a coordinating conjunction.

(loosely paraphrased from Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction by Michael J. Toolan)

Clear as mud? The key part is equal syntactic relevance— in other words, a burger and fries do not have any real precedence or direct relationship. They do not, in and of themselves, constitute a narrative or subordinate structure, though they are presented in a temporal sequence. Expectation of a causal relation in a temporal sequence is what causes the annoyance. That was the cloudy thought driving that blog entry and the reason why I got obsessed with using that conjunctive sequence (and then . . .) for a group of entries following it until I was clear enough on the concept to write about it.

Violation of a paratactic, expected, temporal sequence was one of the primary tools of early oral storytellers like Homer. Events were not related in strictly chronological order, or even in reverse chronological order. Jill is far more deeply read in narrative theory than I am. Genette’s Narrative Discourse rests at my elbow, along with a whole other stack of books on the subject that I want to read. I was shaving on a different splinter that is deeply related. Though largely paratactic, early oral compositions were indeed narrative, but what is unique about them is periodic structure that is not necessarily presented in a temporal, causal relation. That is why I feel they are an important analogue for blog entries. My usage of the term oral is not in any way synonymous with the general banter about conversations. I mean it in a very specific, nuanced way which can only be read in context with a great many entries that I’ve been writing in my blog.

Not all blog constructions result in easily identifiable, or definable, narratives. That, I think, is the beauty of it. Though built on a narrative, temporal, foundation— they don’t really comply with expectation.

{For the lay reader, I'm compelled to quote my Blake professor: “Sometimes confusion is the correct response.” I'm confused myself. So if you feel like you don't understand half of my writing— well, dude, neither do I.}

And then . . .

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And then and then and then . . .

Annoying, isn’t it? That is, of course, the literate reaction.

In Electric Rhetoric Kathleen Welch argues that the oral nature of Isocrates writing style (yes, he wrote all of his speeches, rather than just performing them as other sophisitic orators did) accounts in part for his misreading and lack of acceptance in modern praxis. They turn him into yet another golden boy Greek by neatly sanitizing what made him unique among his milieu— his literacy, and his orality. What seems fascinating to me is the way she describes the modern reaction:

Today’s readers frequently find texts such as this long-winded, repetitious, digressive, and finally, annoying.
Sounds a bit like some reactions to the latest stage of evolution in blogging, doesn’t it? An old guard, argues for a return to brevity and link-dependence. A new faction, composes more carefully wrought essays. However, I suspect that the real beauty of the activity is in the conflation of the two. As Welch argues, in Isocrates’ case:

The prose is associative, as of course much important prose has been, so for him the kind of logic invited by linearity is not privileged. Isocrates introduces issues, leaves them, returns to them, leaves them again, and cumulatively builds on them, in a manner not unlike the speech genres of a lecture or a sermon. . . .

The reader both ancient and modern will find as well an absorption with the lines that Isocrates writes, lines that are worked over, woven, in ways that are beautiful to decode when one stands away from print-dominant formalism that necessarily mocks this writing.
I’d say that this describes blogging perfectly. I like orality. I'm a very oral person. But I like writing too.


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And then . . .

I wonder why I assume that smart people tell the whole story. I linked to Diotima: Materials for Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World on my sidebar a few days ago. I was trying to dig up some information, after Kathleen Welch’s wonderful tirade, and stumbled on that site which said that the reference comes from “a tantalizing passage in Plato's Symposium”. Coincidentally, I had started to read Symposium a month or so ago, but stopped short of finishing it. I didn’t recall any reference.

When I returned to Symposium yesterday, I found that I was on the very page. And that “tantalizing passage” is actually a long speech, which goes on for at least five or six pages.

It is incredible stuff


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no commentAnd then . . .

I find myself completely degenerating into silliness. First, I open up my mail to find a forwarded joke: “What do you get when you cross a feminist and a lawyer? A lawyer who won’t fuck you.”

This of course, in an obtuse way reminded me of the illustration at the right forwarded during my first (to my knowledge), and hopefully last entrance on the Daypop top 40 (at number 27). Today, I found this there:

“Spontaneous interruption of a public sex act to engage in an aggravated assault should be considered as a strong indication of a seriously unaddressed anger management problem,” the complaint states.

Which, circuitously, led me to discover that Gene Simmons plans to be Rock’s Martha Stewart. Which reminded me of a potential future feminist lawyer’s musings: Duo Ranti: Marta Esteeuar e Cultura Corporati Putanissima.

The web is surely a wondrous place. Vowel movements galore. Shite, too much time in the Latinate does drive me back to the Saxon.

—And then . . . Australians have teleportation breakthrough! Wow, now maybe I will be able to visit Luke and Shauny someday soon! And perhaps Delacour too. Now that would be some spooky interaction. I'd much rather have a transporter than an XP-38 landspeeder. You can beam me over anytime.

Punch the keys for god's sake! You're the man now dog!

Gray and Walpole

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the proof plateAnd then . . .

Wood s lot ferreted out The Thomas Gray Archive. Gray is a favorite of mine. The most "major" of the "minor" poets, as one of my professors described him. His complete works can be read in an afternoon.

This reminded me of one of those fun little bits of Blake scholarship. The two small figures in the corner of Blake's illustration for Night The Second of Edward Young's Night Thoughts are the grandfather of Gothic, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray.

The subtitle, "Time, Death, Friendship" is applicable to those two in an interesting way. Walpole was rumored to be gay, and rumor also has it that he made a pass at Gray during their continental tour. They were great friends before that, but Gray quickly and inexplicably returned to England. They were not that close afterward. Blake seems to have agreed with this assessment of Walpole's character, as evidenced by his playful modifications of the plate.

It was really hard for me to track down a copy of the Oxford two-volume edition of Blake's complete designs for Night Thoughts. All the copies available in the US were over $1,000— I finally found one in England for $200, but it cost nearly a hundred to ship because it is so massive.

This is a great excuse to pull it out


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And then . . .

Only rarely do I get aggregated. Sometimes I get the point, but I fear it’s at the top of my head.

One of these days I’ll work on my Movable Type templates. I’d like to switch for several reasons. Most of them have to do with accessibility. But then it means that I’ll have to be more careful with my code and such. I never really thought I’d have much of an audience for playing in my sandbox. Writing is how I stretch; being able to use pictures and hyperlinks is just plain fun— I find that I can compose in a form that really suits my peculiar frames of mind. But I’m not sure it’s worth the aggregation.

I don’t know much about RSS, but I fear it. Part of what really makes blogging special for me is it’s sexual appeal. I suppose that makes me like Golby. Having long experience with the listserv world, I prefer playing with myself (and occasionally with others) to my hearts content here, compared to diving into a textual orgy. It’s my body of work, and I’m not selling it to anyone. Uh, that just seems dirty. Writing snappy pick-up lines for the club, hoping that someone might follow me home. Nope, I just don’t feel the need for the aggregation.

There are all sorts of rules. Content management software is a labor saving device which imposes a structure on things. Distribution software offers more labor saving, but the attendant structures seem more limiting than liberating. Like a referee at an orgy, it seems a wholly superfluous invention. Accessibility is a different issue though; I tried to keep up with it for a while because it seemed, well, democratic.

Oh, that’s right. I had a point. I think self-imposed rules are good. I remember one of the most liberating things in photography I tried was to imposing a structure of randomness. A structure of randomness? Yes, there is such a thing. One of my primary uses for my toy-computer in the dark-ages was generating random map coordinates which I forced myself to photograph. Forcing myself to use the same structure for two posts in a row was also fun. Though I don’t think I’ll ever go so far as scheduling posts, I can get behind the idea. Some structures help. Others don't.


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And then . . .A still from Cocteau's Orpheus

In the Cocteau movie, Orpheus crosses into the abyss. My favorite scenes are the ones in the Princesses’ black Rolls Royce, where Orpheus listens to radio static and hears a series of words and numbers “ . . . nine . . . twelve . . .”

To everyone else it’s just static, but to Orpheus, it’s poetry— I suspect that is the dominant attitude of the majority of those who were drafted into the faculty of U Blog.

Professor Delacour was right to ask: “which hegemony is that?” I meant the faculty of U Blog. Unmotivated to read the fifty-plus reactions to the article due to my biased assumption that most were brief contextual pointers, I relied upon my peers.

Thankfully, the Abraham J. Simpson Chair of Desultory Conjecture presents a masterful function-follows-form supporting argument. His reasoning is stellar; sometimes "rules" are a good thing which force us to reach further creatively than merely replicating structure. Using the antiquated technology of e-mail, I quickly confirmed my suspicion that Meg’s argument was entirely intuitive (no doubt fueled by her undergraduate education in English), and she did not, in fact, know that a substantial body of theory supports her strategy.

My affinity for intuition need not be restated. However, Professor Delacour’s assertion that Meg’s argument lacked nuance needs must be addressed. My training by those tightly suited and bow-tied “New Critical” folks suggests to me that a great point of departure would be simply to return to the text. Let’s have a look at the proposito and diviso of the article:

If we look beneath the content of weblogs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share -- the format. The weblog format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging. Without it, there is no differentiation between the myriad content produced for the Web

This celebration of the “At” level of the phenomenon warms the visual-learner side of me. However, she uses the word beneath misleadingly, as if she were plumbing the depths. No, what she's looking at is the surface, as Stavros and Jonathon quickly surmised. It seems timely to point out that the explosion of postmodern thought stands on a foundation of structuralism and, in lit-crit, the New Critics— we got to this postmodern condition by exploring the difficulties with surface. The key nuances in Meg's argument are found in enabling and differentiating.

Rather than straining to interpret the phenomenon of hypertext and social networks, as most of the big J's before her, she declares a narrow field. Changes in tools have enabled new subset of literacy growth which is best addressed from its surface. Because what is literacy if not a universal set of expectations within a community, forged through interaction? What differentiates a blog from a static web-page is structure. This indeed, I feel, is a finely nuanced assertion. It has limits, much like Chomsky's work on transformational grammar, but it might explain some things as well as Chomsky explained syntactical ambiguity. What seems most important in this case though, is that the tools create the grammar. We create the tools. We can —perhaps— speed or slow the transformation by better understanding the tools. The tools are the deep structure, which does perhaps support her usage of beneath after all.

The “Through” level of blogging is a controversy already in process. That’s where these questions of identity and sincerity are going. Just how reliable are the impressions we receive from our blog reading? This level is important as well, but can possibly be illuminated by examining the difficulties of maintaining serial consistency in identity, a conflict forced by the nature of the tools themselves. The addition of an examination of the “At” level was welcomed by me, as indeed a leading gesture, not a following gesture. I’m happy that Meg has not elected to just get out of the way.

Orpheus was a powerful rhetorician. He could convince the trees and rocks to conform to his will. But Cocteau's Orpheus became mad due to voices only he could hear. The degeneration into schizophrenia is one of those side effects of hearing the poetry among the noise. However, there is the possibility of a bright side at the end of all this. In Cocteau’s movie, after first meeting the Princess Orpheus wakes in a field and the narrator observes:

And a silver shape like his early love doth pass

Upborne by her wild and glittering hair

And when he wakes on the fragrant grass

He finds night day
I think the confusing night represented by hypertext has been turned to day by blogging. I feel this represents a change of consciousness. This is hard to explain, but a fairly hegemonic view in the education industry. For a taste, look at this excerpt from Vygotsky. In Vygotsky's view of cognitive development, language turns inward becoming “inner speech.” Havelock, Ong, and others propose that the transition from speech to writing modulated inner speech, creating new patterns of thought. Writing changed consciousness— as writing changes, we change.

Hmm, this sounds a lot like the conversations I’ve overheard around the water-cooler at U Blog. Upon reflection, perhaps hegemony was a rather noisy word to use. U Bloggers might better be labeled hegemony crickets. I'm just squeaking along with the rest, and of course their frequency makes a great thermometer. Seems to me that writing involves both form and content. Separating them seems dangerous indeed. Of course, the Princess in Orpheus was death. Death is the ultimate expression of temporality. Temporality seduced Orpheus, which seems completely in line with Meg's exploration.

[listening deeply, and being seduced by the siren sound of secondary orality]


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I couldn't find the drive-in scene, so I'll have to settle for the ostrich scene...And then . . .

In the abysmal farce Dude Where's My Car, two guys are in search of a continuum transfunctioner. My favorite moment was when they became trapped at a drive-through where a disembodied voice insistently repeats “and then? . . .”

That's an easy way of describing parataxis. Parataxis is a quality of primary orality —to keep Alex happy, I'll further specify that it is a quality of ancient Greek primary orality— DUDE! That’s what the embryonic structure of blogging is.

When I first read Meg Hourihan’s piece on blogging, I said to myself— SWEET! Of course, this wasn't the hegemonic response. Stavros was the first to blast it, followed closely by Jonathon.

You see, in my opinion, what she was writing about is really the continuum transfunctioner of blogging. To be tiresomely McLuhanesqe, the medium is the message. I'm not saying that Jonathon and Stavros didn’t raise valid points, but as Meg replied in a comment to Jonathon’s post:

What I was trying to do in my article was simply point out that we can’t define this thing based on the content we're outputting, just like you can’t define photography based on the photos of one brilliant photographer. I tried to look beneath the content to the tools and format that enable us to make connections. I wasn’t saying that's all there is to blogging, I was just saying that’s one piece of it.

I’d like to take that a step further. What she's looking at is the grammar of blogging. There is a reason for the explosion of diverse content, post-blogging. I think it has a lot to do with the changes to the grammar involved. Blogging is a fat sandwich. I’m looking at it through the lens of orality, literacy, and secondary orality theory— what Kathleen Welch calls good bread for arguments about literacy in the electronic age. I think the content produced through blogging represents an entirely new kind of meat. And to invert Welch, we need the bread too.

Simply put, the structure imposed by the grammatical rules of timestamps, permalinks, etc., results in paratactic information exchange. Each day adds another level of and then. . . which had been largely lost in conventional hypertext documents. In hypertext, there doesn't have to be a then, only rhizomatic patterns of connection. Blogging imposes a structure which makes hypertext more functional as a medium. The first generation “link blogs” are entirely paratactic, compared to the hypotactic, subordinating [dare I say tree-like] nature of first generation personal home pages. Hypotaxis was derived from print literacy. Link blogs are in essence far more oral and conversational.

Blogs move things back toward the pole of orality because of their grammar. The world returns to its long-lost and then . . . roots. However, as the divergence of conversation suggests, it’s not a simple change. As long form blogging has stretched out, it still maintains its periodic oral structure while each post within a blog maintains a largely literate subordinate hypotactic structure. We are going into the future by rediscovering the temporal, ever-shifting nature of the oral past. As Jeremy Bushnell reflected a few days ago, there are precedents to this return to temporal writing, but the sheer scale of the thing begs that we examine not just how these tools affect “writers,” but how they affect everyone. Blogs are one of the best arguments for the emergence of what Father Ong calls secondary orality.

Why is this important? Because it represents an entirely new kind of consciousness, not a “paradigm shift” (yech!) but a syntagmatic shift. The grammar of blogging is perhaps instrumental for the practical development of a completely new grammar of thought. I don't think what Meg was talking about was trivial at all. Of course, I seem to be in the minority here, but I thought I'd speak up. Isocrates was present at a very similar interface point, and Welch has some really interesting observations that I’ll talk about later. For now, I just wanted to repeat a blogger's chorus:

Dude! What does mine say?

Sweet! What does mine say?

Dude! What does mine say?

Sweet! What does mine say?

And then is the paratactic connection with the dawn of oral, storytelling consciousness. I know I may get tedious and tendentious with all my linguistics and grammatology, but I feel this sort of thing is really useful in understanding what’s going on as we move deeper into the mass of electronic textuality.

The technology of photography is indeed of great importance, for example, in examining how the small hand-held camera and high speed films fundamentally changed the content of photography. In a mature medium, these questions are less important. But still, Walker Evans’s nearly recursive move back into heavy view cameras deeply effected the character of the images he produced, when contrasted to his street photography with roll-film cameras. The grammar of the machine affects the content. I gave up infrared photography largely for the reasons Jonathon suggested; people didn’t care about the photographs, only the technology. But, how old is blogging? Shouldn’t we be asking precisely these sort of questions?

[ducking before the ostrich pokes my eye out]

Walker Evans, Pt. 8

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Reaching Toward Critical Mass

Walker Evans, Billboard in the Bronx, 1929-30

Jonathon’s gesture towards an Walker Evans photograph reminded me about something I should have been doing. Last month, I started a sort of survey of the work of Walker Evans, but I stopped around 1930— the point where most critics begin.

I was leading toward something. But once again, before I get there, I've got to pause for a moment to share a few more of those 1929-30 gems, which most people probably have not seen.

Early focus on the nature of hypertext pointed at the “death of the author” somewhat tediously. I think that TV’s latest motion toward the role of pseudonyms in the 18th century is a more fruitful (and perhaps not as cliché as he thinks) way to think about what is going on regarding the web. Where Evans was going involved marching in lockstep with the early modernists into anonymity. But prior to 1930, he was still working in a rather assertive and playful mode, dancing on the edge of sentimental celebration before falling off the other side into something bright, shiny, and hard.

So, I suppose I’ll dive back in again with a bit of a recap, and some new images. What keeps drawing me back to these photographs is their humor. I never seem to tire of looking at them. Though sometimes Evans is easily placed into his milieu, often, he dances precariously just beyond the edge of the “high seriousness” of modernity.

Eventually, Evans left the bright lights and big city.


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Heavener, Oklahoma has become a border town.Natives are calling it Little Tijuana, however Heavener has no Catholic church yet, only small closet downtown.

In a short time, the sleepy little Oklahoma town has been overrun by scores of Mexicans who have come to town to work in the huge chicken plant there.

I liked my mom's reaction to the whole controversy. She said:

“If they don't like it, well, it's their own fault for not wanting to work in the chicken plant.”

Working in chicken processing plants is hard, disgusting work. The area is filled with poverty. Since the rise of Walmart and other discount chains, the downtown areas have been reduced to rows of secondhand shops. It's a far cry from when I visited as a boy. Heavener was never really “Main-Street America,” of the form that exists in a lot of Midwestern towns; it's always been a sort of frontier outpost, where the seedy side of America pokes its stubble through.

I first saw The Wild One in a theater in downtown Heavener in the 70s. It was still popular then. One of my uncles lived there, alongside some railroad tracks. Bill Thompson would disappear into the surrounding hills for days on end; Bill ran a still, chewed tobacco, and drank from mason jars. Heavener was a hillbilly wonderland.

I'd always meant to go there someday and photograph it, but the Heavener I knew no longer exists.

Downtown Heavener, Oklahoma, reflects cultures with a high misery index in collision

The E question

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The “E” question.

I have consciously avoided, in all my pursuits, questions of ethics. There just doesn’t seem to be a convincing argument, to me at least, that ethics exist as a “discrete” quantity to be conferred or instilled in an individual, or a society for that matter. Senstitivity to ethical issues can be conferred through both rhetorical and philosophical education, but ethics as a subject field is both a mystery, and a misery to me. I noticed as I logged on to the OED today that they updated the entry for misery with some nuanced terms:

misery index Econ. (orig. and chiefly U.S.), an informal measure of the state of an economy obtained from the sum of the rate of inflation and the unemployment statistics, devised by American economist Arthur Okun (1928-80).

1973 D. POTTER Hide & Seek iv. 99 ‘What's the matter with you, misery guts?’ asked the other woman, obscurely offended. ‘Piss off, Marlene,’ the girl replied.

As Turbulent Velvet commented, the subject of emotions and ethics are seldom mentioned in the same breath. However, rhetoric and emotions often are. Rhetorical education has long been scarred by its association with ethics. This goes back to the “Q” question explored by Lanham. Just what is good in regard to Quintilian’s definition of the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well?” Is good an ethical term, or an evaluation of value? The Platonic and Aristotelian view is that good is an ethical term, and this makes rhetoric supremely problematic. The Sophistic view is that good is a pragmatic question of value. But good is never ignored in questions of rhetoric. Cicero, one of the great taxonomizers, listed the attributes of “personhood” as multiple facets that must be dealt with in order to promote the judgment desired by an orator, stealing some concepts from Isocrates regarding the public notion of good.

All propositions are supported in argument by attributes of persons or of actions.

We hold the following to be the attributes of persons: name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, feeling, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, speeches made.

Name is that which is given to each person, whereby he is addressed by his own proper and definite appellation. It is hard to give a simple definition of nature. (De Inv. I:24:34)

Habit is a poor translation. Cicero uses habitus demonstrating his sensitivity to the cultural part of identity. Notice also that he also includes both feeling and chance. Nature, as Cicero notes, is the most problematic term to define. He goes on to describe biological attributes, and qualities which differentiate men from beasts. Nature is the problematic descriptor at the root of the conflict between transcendental expressivism and socially constructed neo-Marxist praxis. Is nature merely habitus? I resist that conclusion. Expressivism deals with the “E” question in a Kantian manner, assuming that people in touch with their true selves are impelled toward moral behavior. Social Constructivism is built on the premise that education instills moral values. Sophistic praxis ridicules the problematic nature of ethics, and thumbs its nose at ethical conventions.

I don’t think that rhetoric should teach ethics, only ethical sensitivity. It’s “good” to recognize the values game, and the qualities of emotion and chance that influence it. Dwelling on ethics makes me a misery guts, causing a huge increase in my misery index.

Sophistry in Action

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Sophistry in action, from Aristophanes' The Clouds


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Sort of like a Mattress Tag

It begged me to do it! Really, I just had to!

Teaching what doesn’t exist.

I’ve been trying to read Kathleen Welch’s Electric Rhetoric for a little over a year now. The whole thing is so agonistic that it’s hard to separate the venom from the serum. Most reviewers don’t agree with me. Noemi Marin applauds it. Raymie McKerrow calls it a richly textured, broadly supported argument. I’m on page seventy-five, and I really haven’t found an original argument yet. It’s mostly been a polemic against other rhetoricians that have used dead white guys as a means to develop their arguments for rhetorical pedagogies which really don’t differ that radically from what she proposes. That is, unless you count studying texts that don’t exist.

Checking in the index, she lambasts Lanham for not citing enough women writers, calling it an evidence of his bias. Of course, she admits her own bias (as no-doubt Lanham would as well). Welch constantly announces what she’s going to do, but as a poor magician’s stall, it’s just taking too damn long. But I’m trying, again, to persevere. Diotima is her Joan of Arc. A brief reference, in one line of Plato’s Symposium, representing a female rhetorician with no extant writings. I’m all for studying female rhetoric; but how do you study what isn’t there? Well, you study contemporary theory on rhetoric that isn’t there. Sorry, I’d rather read Jane Austen. Now there is some powerful female rhetorical theory that does exist. I’ve got high hopes for Aphra Behn as well.

I just had to rant. I like Isocrates (her pet Sophist), but I prefer Protagoras. What really nailed me was her wonderful flourishes regarding Henry Sussman’s deployment of Ong’s orality theories in High Resolution:

This book is a sandwich in which the meat is a well done formulation applied to Male Master texts and the bread is some orality, literacy, secondary orality theory. We need the bread.
Don't hold back girl, tell us how you really feel! So far, her book seems like a steam sandwich, with almost no bread. There are some points that I want to take from it that are good, but the constant fuming over nonexistant texts is just infuriating. At least Protagoras left fragments!


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I am pointing a gub at you. Abt naturally.

The confusion over Virgil’s bank-robbing note in Take the Money and Run points at the necessity of interpretation as a pragmatic part of communication. He failed to rob the bank, because nobody could understand his handwriting. The primary flaw I see in Lanham’s reduction of things to levels of transmission (At / Through) is that it doesn't begin to touch the problem of interpretation. This is a mistake that Ricoeur addresses. I’ll wander my way back there sometime soon. I’ve been dancing toward this stuff for a while. Turbulent Velvet posed a question in a comment:

When someone insists on "sincerity," is this always a formal-stylistic-epistemological demand?
I think so. I’ve come to that conclusion because of my thinking about linking. Another way to view links (linguistically) is to think of them as deictic structures, or in philosophical language, indexical expressions. Conversationally, they are among the most problematic building blocks. For example, this is a sentence steeped in deixis:

I will be back in an hour.

An hour from when? Without face-to-face interaction, we must speculate on the “now” that the writer is referring to. The “now” must have some relative referent to be meaningful. In the case of a blog entry, if the post has a time-stamp, it is indeed meaningful in the time context. But what about space? When I say “back” it implies a “here” which the return will be consummated in. Does the writer mean he will write more in his blog, or merely be connected to the web, waiting for replies? What if a writer says:

I will be back soon.

Soon, for a rock, might be a thousand years. For a human, well, the entire concept is socially constructed and conditioned by appropriateness behaviors. The problematic nature of identity in writing often amplified by the web exists because the presence of an I implied in all statements constitutes a deictic expression. When someone links something, even with only an implied intention, an I is present as the epistemic, indexical context for the utterance:

[I think this is] Hilarious

It seems easy to index some qualities of intention behind my act of pointing— I must be interested in writing, or at least be in possession of a dirty mind, to find it funny. There is an inferred I at the core of all statements. Thus, the insistence on “sincerity” is an epistemic demand for clarification of the position of the speaker in relation to the utterance. Links are always deictic. They come from somewhere and they go somewhere, which can only be defined relatively. As Jill has noted, they are signs of value. Links are currently being “mined” in a relatively simplistic way creating a power dynamic that, though tangential to what I’ve been on about, is relevant. Identity, at least in most Western cultures, has its own sort of value, its own currency. And the "mining methods" surrounding identity are similarly flawed.

Questioning online identity is similar to questioning link economics because identity also involves a complex exchange between differing consensual levels of access. I blame Alex for getting me started on this. Questions of linking and questions of identity are not usually connected because the convergence of the deictic functions in electronic discourse is seldom noticed: what we point at and who we are have received attention separately, but not together. Expressions of identity, whether in the form of abstract links or expressive revelations, index the relative position of the speaker to the hearer, and are largely inferred rather than overtly stated. To request clarification of either (context around a pointer, sincerity from a writer) is indeed a formal-stylistic-epistemological demand. Indexical expressions are evaluated for “truth value” on the basis of both ends of the relation. However, conversational deixis is not conveniently reducible to pure semantic, truth-conditional analysis. This, perhaps, —as Frank Zappa would say— is the crux of the biscuit ['].

There’s a lot more to think about in that fat comment. I don’t see the problem of emotion or “emotional scripts” as an “orthogonal vector” to conventional rhetorical theory, but instead a central cause for the vibrations. The oscillation between expressivist and social-constructivist praxis is a large case in point. I’ve got a paper on that subject I’m still working on. But I’ve already babbled on too long. Perhaps later.


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Getting Smashedtoasted head? sounds good to me!

Turbulent Velvet emailed me about a problem with my commenting feature. Because of my preference for composing directly in HTML (without an editor) I must disable the automatic insertion of line-breaks. I knew about the problem, but it didn't really seem to be that important until people started leaving longer comments.

The side-effect of not having breaks is that the comments get smashed. The only solution I've found is to enable HTML completely in the comments. This means that you can <p> and <br> to your heart's content now. Just don't expect anything to happen by just hitting return, and kindly close your tags! Violators will be edited.

A nearby coffeehouse with its own roaster has a great warning in the parking lot: “Violators will be roasted and ground.” It's almost as good as the warning sign in the parking lot of the UALR Methodist student union: “Dire consequences for transgressors.”

I was hoodwinked at the local wine store into buying a chardonnay. I prefer red wine; maybe it’s the blood thing. They told me that Toasted Head was owned by Robin Williams. A simple mistake really. Robin Williams owns Toad Hollow, which isn’t nearly as flashy.

You’d think they’d get it straight though, since the epicenter of Toad Suck Daze is a half-hour away. Odd that a festival named for drinking would be in a dry county. You’ve got to love the South. Yes, selling (not drinking) booze is illegal in some places around here.

But I digress (as usual). There was something seductive about a wine whose logo is a fire-breathing bear. Hey, I resemble that remark! And besides, everybody loves Toasted Head!


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In one of those weird little epiphanies last semester, it dawned on me that the only difference between dialogic and dialectic was the presence of an implied hierarchy, and an implied resolution in dialectic. Dialogism is messy, and refuses to be any other way.

Dialectic is one means of damping the oscillation (or osculation) of dialogue. Who’s your daddy? Dialectic is coercive, and more often than not presents a false security of pretended resolution. Reading deeply in Plato these last few years, I’m struck with how unresolved and unsynthesized things really are. Centuries have declared Plato and his apologist Aristotle the victor, effectively squelching the other voices in the dialogic oscillation. Aristotle became the “Daddy.” Rewriting (his)tory with the silenced voices back in becomes a sort of fetish game of dominance and submission.

I’m not sure this is all that productive. However, recognizing the swinging pendulum itself surely is. With each stroke, the opposing voices are driven to clarify their positions, and recognize the value-laden nature of the discourse. Each time that I write something here, since I seem to have attracted a crowd of astute readers, I anticipate a certain amount of pressure on problematic assumptions. This is a good thing. I try to return the favor from time to time. This blog has transformed lately into a reading journal which compares concepts in books I’m reading with conversations already in progress, with an occasional expressive flourish. It helps me, a lot.

I am glad that Tom spoke up about my problematic lines regarding skepticism. I wrote and erased them a dozen times. Eventually, I settled on leaving them in as a sort of aporia. Statements of that type beg for a defense, which then (or now) I lack the energy to pursue. It was the one part of the essay that I was least happy with; but rather than expend a great deal of time with that (relatively minor) conceptual part of the equation, I simply let it stand and moved on. I’m happy that someone noticed; it’s the sort of thing that could easily be expanded into an essay all its own. Reduction always invites challenge, as AKMA parenthetically noted in his wrap-up of some of the conversation going on.

Thankfully, his clarification need not be answered in a response of my own. When I expressed a sympathy for his questioning of the flight from accountability that pseudonymous writing can represent, it was for all the reasons that Ed noted in response to another conversational thread:

But failing to convey feelings or at least the inability to properly resolve them, whether in person, privately or through the act of writing, has got to be the ultimate stab against self-respect. And anyone who stops at midpoint because of this, anyone who fails to put their name upon a piece, is ultimately disrespecting the full nature of their talent, or owning up to their own inadequacies or, for that matter, who they really are.
The problems involved are complex. As I said, this is my “first response,” but not my only response. Learning to construct multiple identities through writing is a key skill. People try on different voices, though I think it is necessary in the end to be accountable for those voices. But even in sum, all these voices do not entirely construct a person. There are always silences, gaps, and ums and uhs. Life itself is often seems a “dark, deep Ravine— / Thou many-colour'd, many-voiced vale” where things are only discovered through the relationships implied between them.

There are large areas at play in writing instruction regarding which voice should be emphasized in teaching. The oscillation swings between privileging disclosure (expressivism) and privileging silence (neo-traditional and some aspects of social-constructivist praxis). Power always enters into the problem. There are no easy answers, as Rory’s reply to that splinter thread implies. It is indeed about the definitions of public and private, and it is also about the economics of the exchange. And economics are only possible when one thing is valued more highly than another.

Jill unveiled an interesting paper on the economics of links. This approach certainly has merit, regarding one important aspect of link behaviors. People are the currency of the web that interests me, and it seems pertinent to note one more definition of rhetoric from Richard A. Lanham:

Rhetoric is the economics of attention.
Disclosure and non-disclosure are in some ways the personal currency of the web. While it is tempting to view them as positive and negative values, which is which depends entirely on your perspective. Perhaps the fun is in the friction, which dialogic rather than dialectic exchange implies.

Good vibrations?

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I used to like to build thingsExperiments in Magnetism

The freaky thing about the snapshots I discovered last week is that they confirm moments I've written about.

In the story Wound, written just after my brother David's death, I talked about building some magnetic project kits.

Well, here is some supporting evidence. The kit is strewn all over the dining-room table, and my trusty glass of iced tea is close by. It's weird to see what I actually looked like during those early years.

Geek boy in his element.

I did have an odd thing for magnets at first. I'd break magnets off of old speakers once I destroyed them by turning them into vibrators.

It was a cool trick my brother Stephen taught me. Just hook up a speaker to a 12-volt train transformer, and it vibrates like hell at 60hz. That is, until the speaker bursts into flame, shooting sparks and the flaming cone across the room. I have a long history of being easily amused.

Good vibrations? I suppose so, in a childish way. There is something compelling about oscillation.


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Thoreau didn’t know much about oscillators.

He did, however, know about magnetism:

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say.

Walden, “Economy”
In another of those surprising synchronicities, in The Electronic Word Lanham uses Thoreau as an example of the CBS (Clarity, Brevity, Sincerity) mode of identity construction. The grounded assumption behind this is that "things to say" come from inside, rather than through intercourse. However, as Diane and Loren’s dialogic reading of Walden suggests, there is in play an oscillation between “romantic individuality” and humans as social creatures. What interests me most about this statement by Thoreau is that it neatly defines the reaction of big “J” journalists to the phenomenon of blogging; they are functioning under a similar assumption. Facts are objects to be mined and refined, and are not created through social interaction. The discourse pool is just a pit in which to drop your magnet and pull out a nugget. There is no excuse, these days, for this mode of thinking. At least Thoreau had an excuse.

The vacuum tube hadn't been invented yet. Fleming created the diode in 1904, but it wasn’t until Lee De Forest invented the audion tube (triode) in 1906 that tubes became an active device. An extra part, known as a grid, could modulate the current traveling across and inject feedback to create either amplification or oscillation. Though tubes have been largely replaced by solid-state devices, the basic principles remain. The difference between an amplifier and an oscillator is slight: changing a few component values can affect the transformation. The hard-wired circuits can be identical. Keeping amplifiers stable is tricky— they always want to oscillate.

Metaphorically speaking, I think this is the sort of crossroads that the spread of personal communication on the Internet represents. The challenge, of course, is stabilizing the oscillation to productive ends: much like the oscillation at the core of radio, TV, and above all, computers. Too much feedback, and it becomes nothing more than a high-pitched whine that doesn't do much but run away. Oscillation begs for control, something to stabilize it so it doesn't run away and overheat all the component parts. It needs a resonant frequency, or alternately, a clock. Ever hear the term clock speed? It’s the oscillator at the heart of your computer. Without this synchronization, you couldn't compute at all.

Electronic communication is constantly stepping up in clock speed, but oscillation is still apparent in a world before active devices. Diane was astute to point out the oscillation operative in Thoreau between withdrawl and emergence. It’s just that his “operating system” was geared toward privileging one pole of that oscillation. I suspect that is what the Internet is deeply changing; knowledge is coming from both centers of activity. Lanham argues that the operating system of humanity must be changed in order to keep pace with the active, electronic world. The rigid “print” operating system can't be sustained much longer. Like the 640k ceiling of MS DOS, it has got to go. However, that doesn't mean that some programs will continue to run because they are useful in the new environment. Some degree of compatability is possible. Books can live on, but the thinking that generates inflexiblity in texts as if they are opaquely telegraphing messages, must change. The new world is see-through. The emperor has no clothes.

Part of the shifting perception in rhetoric is the return of the sophistic world-view embracing rhetoric's epistemic (knowledge producing) function. The oscillation of conversations does not just (re)present knowledge already present inside people. It creates new knowledge, which only grows with each sharing. Electronic communication can be not just an oscillator, but an amplifier. That’s the point that the big “J” folks miss entirely. It seems like they only pay attention when the high pitched whine of war or tech blogging hits their ears.

Makes me glad I read all those biographies as a child (Edison, De Forest, Robert Goddard, etc.), and took apart lots of old electronic devices. Maybe I wasn’t wasting my time building a theremin in my reading class in Junior High. My teacher, realizing that I was already reading at college level, gave me an electronic project kit to play with. Electronic metaphors are good for electronic communication.

A social grid, evolving through blogging, can act as a means of controlling resonance. It can contain, at least briefly, those moments of resonance which allow for amplification. We all both impose on (constrain) each other in productive amplification as well as trigger (excite) runaway points of oscillation. But it always starts with modulation and feedback, things which are far outside the magnetic realm of the telegraph.


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Self-ish blogging

Odd things always converge in the world conversation of blogging. It seems that Shauna and Daniel are trading places. What makes this game even more interesting is that Daniel has left Shauna with some canned posts to use as she is currently struggling with a writer’s block. So, who is who? Stepping into someone else’s personality template is an interesting idea indeed.

Part of “Elegies for the Book,” one of Lanham’s essays in The Electronic Word, relates directly to the “self” question in electronic communication. I really like his point of view:

Something in this repeated discussion about self and society in the electronic classroom and, by extension, in electronic society needs to be set straight. The central self is threatened not by a lively social self but by a lack of one. Electronic networks permit a genuinely stylized public life, one with formal roles that we can play that are not isomorphic with our “real selves.” They allow us to create that genuine social self which America has discouraged from the beginning. Our Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity theory of style has been a theory of identity too. We have in America always resisted a formal public self and society: that represented the kind of European insincerity America meant to escape. For this reason, American academic utopias have always tried to do away with the false authoritarian relationships between student and teacher and to speak without the “rhetoric” of polite public conversation.

But this rhetoric allows us to have a genuine private self. The one extreme creates the other; the oscillation between the two creates the complex Western self. If computer networks allow us to play roles with no fear, so much the better. We should push them in that direction. We needn’t worried that the private, central self will be impoverished. Private selves are created by public ones.
I think private selves are developed through conversation. We take what we want and leave the rest, perhaps finding our boundaries as Ray aptly describes it. Sustaining conversation requires certain common grounds of “appropriateness conventions,” in other words, politeness, which can only be developed through social interaction. One camp seems to view hypertext as the ultimate in individualistic (or at least anti-authoritarian) rudeness; the other, the ultimate in social politeness. I suspect that Lanham is right to suggest that the real power lies in the oscillation between the two.

Oh, and it does bear mentioning that the CBS style is actually descended from the Scots— Alexander Bain in particular— who was also one of the first rhetorical theorists who focused on writing rather than oration. He's the guy responsible for such things as "thesis statements" and the five paragraph model of the essay, rapidly embraced by America in the twentieth century.


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Last night I dreamt my mother was dead.my mother in 1942

I didn't really feel anything. I was at her funeral, doing what I always do under stress: dealing with it. I was completing the arrangements, getting the tiny room together and waiting for everyone to show up. I looked back from the pulpit, next to a casket, and was transfixed by the rows of folding chairs. There were less than a dozen of them.

I walked outside the empty room, and signed some papers in the lobby. No one I knew was there yet. I just waited, and thought about how small the whole affair was. Most of the people she knew were already dead.

I woke up feeling fragile.

Together, my parents can drive a car fairly well. My mom is a bit uncoordinated and timid; my father is bold and well skilled— but he can't hear, and has a short attention span. His mind wanders sometimes, and he doesn't pay attention to what's going on. Mom keeps him out of trouble. I don't know what he'd do without her. They do everything together.

I should have been a mess in the dream. But I wasn't. I was just thinking about what I had to do. Taking care of things, making sure things worked out right.

Sometimes I just can't allow myself to hurt.


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Stepping across the line

One of the powerful things about diagramming things like I did a few hours ago, is realizing what a short trip across the line it is to consolidate both “philosophical” (ethical) notions of a central self and “rhetorical” (role-playing) selves. One of the points that Lanham makes is that electronic communication makes it possible for both central and social self to coexist more easily. I suspect the same is true of the philosophical and rhetorical selves. This thought bubble was the result of AKMA’s blog on identity and Stavros’ reply.

I empathize deeply with both positions. I don’t use a pseudonym, but I often write in different “personalities.” They are all merely aspects of the total me. My first reaction always is to consider hiding a mistake, for much the same reasons as AKMA does. I think it erodes the perception of sincerity (I’m still deeply engrained with CBS). However, I’m not so attached to the idea that real world presence is uniquely tied to body in the usual sense. Body is also the root of concepts of privacy, and as such is deeply a part of the more abstract, etherial concept of rhetorical self. Philosophical self stands naked and public, while rhetorical self maintains privacy behind devices like pseudonym and anonymity. Both coexist in every person. In the "onion" conception of self (from the Speech-Communications field), philosophical self is the last part we chose to reveal socially— we save it for those we love.

What seems unique about blogging to me is that it is simultaneously public and private. I control what my page says; it is outside of public or social control and hence private. I say this mostly because I do not blog for validation (though it is nice sometimes) but instead to clarify my own thoughts on whatever topic strikes me at the moment through writing. I can’t be private to the degree that other people are about my thoughts; it’s just an aspect of my personality (in virtually all my multivalent selves) to say what I’m thinking. Conceptually, I try to live in a constant state of love. I can respect those who feel safer by concealing identity, but I don’t really feel the need for the safety that they do. However, in a concrete sense, the mass-confusion of the social rhetorical self is a truer picture of who a person really is than the naked philosophical self— there is more information to process in order to construct an interpretive identity.


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Riffing on Nanian's diagrams...

I like diagrams

In one of those little epiphanies Tom was talking about, it dawned on me that the earliest formulated sets of rules for blogging were nothing but the age-old Newtonian rules of rhetoric: Clarity, Brevity, and Sincerity (CBS).

One of the unstated rules of Western culture brought out by Lanham in The Electronic Word is that one must "be sincere, whether you mean it or not." Rhetoric by its oppositional nature is the antithesis to "rules." It seems little wonder that it wasn't long before those rules were violated. CBS was quickly sent to hell. Of course sincerity was replaced by timeliness in the "blogging rules," but with the distortions involved with "web time," a page that is years old becomes new when cast into a new context through blogging. Rules don't work for rhetoric; rhetoric only allows for models. And models have an incredible tendency to shift.

On an unrelated note, I was pleased to find out that Marshall McLuhan began as a scholar of Classical Rhetoric: his dissertation was on the rhetoric of Thomas Nashe. While the shifting face of technology is "new" it is also incredibly old. Technology has been shifting for a long time. Viewed philisophically, postmodernism appears to be a radical disruption; viewed rhetorically, it is just an ongoing movement back to humanity's rhetorical roots.

The Q question

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Does Teaching the Humanities Humanize?

One of the most interesting essays in Lanham’s Electronic Word is “The ‘Q’ Question.” The “Q” in question is Quintilian, and Lanham traces the rise of English departments and decline of Rhetoric as a central educational force back to Ramus— not an original conception of the problem. What is fairly original, however, is recasting the struggle back to the original Greek debate between Plato and the Sophists as to whether areté (the qualities of a good citizen) can be taught.

The question asked by Quintilian in book twelve of Instutitio Oratoria is a continuing reflection on the idea that the ideal orator is “a good man speaking well.” By teaching a student the techné of rhetoric, do they somehow become good? Quintilian, with eleven long books invested in the subject, of course answers “yes” but with no real defense for his answer. He merely “begs the question,” repeating his answer so many times that a reader must automatically agree.

One possible defense, which comes up a lot in politically trying times, is that there is “good rhetoric” and “bad rhetoric.” Lanham calls this the “weak defense” of rhetoric. This defense stems almost entirely from Ramus, who assaulted this definition of an orator point blank:

What then can be said against this definition of an orator? I assert indeed that this definition of an orator seems to me to be useless and stupid . . .

For although I admit rhetoric is a virtue, it is a virtue of the mind and intelligence, as in all the true liberal arts, whose followers can be men of the utmost moral depravity.
This is, in essence, Plato’s quarrel with the Sophists. To fix the problem, Ramus removed all “invention” or discovery ideas from the realm of rhetoric, moving invention to the province of logic and philosophy. This makes rhetoric “value neutral” and not a means of teaching virtue. The Sophistic emphasis was on teaching students to argue both sides of a question; only through examining both sides did an orator become “the wisest of men” because he was able to recognize that both arguments were indeed value laden. Sophistic rhetoric is a tool to explore both virtue and vice. Plato (or Ramus) just wouldn’t have any part of that.

It seems inevitable that if virtue was not to be found in virtuosity, it must be found somewhere else. Answering the “Q question” with a resolute NO! inevitably forced a shift into canonical texts, where “good books read well” could educate students to be virtuous. The problem is, just what is a good book and what is reading well?

It was Quintilian’s project to unify philosophy and rhetoric into two sides of the same coin, not to separate them as praxis after Ramus has. To answer the “Q question” with a resounding YES! requires a profound examination of just what being human is; it requires the acceptance of both virtue and vice as necessary parts of the decision making process. You cannot separate them. Inevitably, Lanham sees the “strong defense” of rhetoric in the dramatistic nature of decision making; the courtroom model of prosecution and defense performing in front of an audience (jury). Humanity is by its nature rhetorical, and acceptance of that fact is what makes rhetorical education in the humanities an integral part of the humanizing process.

What makes “great books” great is their intractable refusal to be models of strictly virtue or vice, and their engagement with the dramatistic conflict between the two.

Quintillian on Education

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Quintilian on Education

From Institutio Oratoria Book I

Without natural gifts technical rules are useless. Consequently the student who is devoid of talent will derive no more profit from this work than barren soil from a treatise on agriculture. (pr 26)

I would, therefore, have a father conceive the highest hopes of his son from the moment of birth. If he does so, he will be more careful about the groundwork of his education. For there is absolutely no foundation for the complaint that but a few men have the power to take in knowledge that is imparted to them, and that the majority are so slow of understanding that education is a waste of time and labour. On the contrary you will find that most are quick of reason and ready to learn. Reasoning comes as naturally to man as flying to birds, speed to horses and ferocity to beasts of prey: our minds are endowed by nature with such activity and sagacity of the soul is believed to proceed from heaven.

Those who are dull and unteachable are as abnormal as prodigious births and monstrosities, and are but few in number. (I:1)

The American education system is modeled on Roman example. What I can’t figure out is why some teachers choose to embrace the first thought, and ignore the second. The system is filled with gatekeepers who selectively pick who is talented and who is not, as if the failure to excel rests entirely on the student and not the teacher.

A stereo pair of jokes

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Just a stereo pair of jokes

somehow, I think I have a few more nobs to twist than this-- but it's a fun thought. I know my speed control is a bit like this.


Music bosses have unveiled a revolutionary new recording format that they hope will help win the war on illegal file sharing which is thought to be costing the industry millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Nicknamed the 'Record', the new format takes the form of a black vinyl disc measuring 12 inches in diameter, which must be played on a specially designed 'turntable'.

"We can state with absolute certainty that no computer in the world can access the data on this disc," said spokesman Brett Campbell. "We are also confident that no one is going to be able to produce pirate copies in this format without going to a heck of a lot of trouble. This is without doubt the best anti-piracy invention the music industry has ever seen."

As part of the invention's rigorous testing process, the designers gave some discs to a group of teenage computer experts who regularly use file swapping software such as Limewire and Gnutella and who admit to pirating music CDs. Despite several days of trying, none of them were able to hack into the disc's code or access any of the music files contained within it.

"It's like, really big and stuff," said Doug Flamboise, one of the testers. "I couldn't get it into any of my drives. I mean what format is it? Is it, like, from France or something?"

In the new format, raw audio data in the form of music is encoded by physically etching grooves onto the vinyl disc. The sound is thus translated into variations on the disc's surface in a process that industry insiders are describing as 'completely revolutionary' and 'stunningly clever.'

To decode the data stored on the disc, the listener must use a special player which contains a 'needle' that runs along the grooves on the record surface, reading the indentations and transforming the movements back into audio that can be fed through loudspeakers.

Even Shawn Fanning, who invented Napster, admits the new format will make file swapping much more difficult. "I've never seen anything like this," he told reporters. "How does it work?"

As rumors that a Taiwanese company has been secretly developing a 12 inch wide, turntable-driven, needle-based, firewire drive remain unconfirmed, it would appear that the music industry may have, at last, found the pirate-proof format it has long been searching for.

At / Through

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At / Through

Processing Lanham’s Electronic Word a little further brings me back to links. Raymon pointed me at a student’s hypertext reading of the book (thanks!) that expressed some discomfort at the repetition of some concepts, such as the “At / Through” reading of texts, suggesting that Lanham “put his HTML where his mouth is.” Reading a good book on discourse analysis or linguistics is like that too. Sometimes, the concepts are so important that transposition into a linear textual exposition requires this sort of emphasis to convey the weight behind the words.

Lanham proposes that electronic communication is the ultimate convergence of text, image, and music. While the paradigmatic (in a linguistic sense) set of meanings available for expression in these earlier technologies is the same, the syntagmatic rules which govern their behavior are not. The grammar is different (my conjecture, not Lanham’s). Projecting my intuition onto Lanham, you could say that the paradigmatic level (the Through level) is confronted with new syntax of expression on the At level.

Lanham uses Eric Havelock’s work to suggest that this is natural with any new technology: with the development of alphabetic technologies, letters were at first decorative rather than transparent carriers of meaning. Letters lost their surface character after a time, becoming a transparent meaning carrier enabling us to look through them; however, this is an illusory phenomenon which ignores the value laden nature of discourse. In times of interface between the two levels (image / text), simultaneous functioning on both levels (At / Through) historically has occurred. Illuminated manuscripts are a strong case in point. Perhaps the arguments regarding the syntactic functioning of links in hypertext are evidence of a similar mode of interface.

Adrian Miles site shows the same sort of convergence that Lanham was talking about. What is most striking to me is that, unlike the statement I quoted regarding the lawlessness of links, Miles actually argues for the development of a syntax for using hypertext for scholarly documents. Entering the same document from Miles’ akademic werds page, I discovered that the article was much deeper and broader than I originally thought. I misread it. Why? Because the “rules” were unknown to me, and I hadn’t clicked any of the links. There was no clear marker (just a visual map on the side that I missed) as to where or how the essay was structured. Nothing differentiated the use of links as “works cited” and links as a narrative structure. That’s the problem with hypertext: grammar must be inferred, and links haven't been around long enough to develop any sort of syntax allowing a reader to follow link structures transparently, that is, to read through the text without the disruption of confronting the presence of a link. For now, links are indeed ruptures; but it may not always be that way.

Thinking about this in broader terms, applying the convergence that Lanham proposes, it seems as if we must confront the presence of syntactic rules in all forms of communication. Syntax, in a linguistic sense, is well formed and only partly understood. In a musical sense, syntax is present in terms of codified scales and genre expectations developed after years of tradition. Pictorially, syntax is mysterious and only relatively recently has developed some expected parameters for communication beyond genre (extra-linguistic universal signage). Perhaps this collision of pictorial communication (the At level) and linguistic communication accounts for the difficulty involved.

Links of the meaning-nn type (non-natural intentional communication) require syntax in order to be interpreted. The primary recourse is to linguistic syntax, but this isn’t the only possibility. A deeper development of visual syntax is perhaps the key to preserving the synergistic At / Through oscillation without losing the capacity to transmit meaning. This seems much like the secondary orality that Father Ong proposes, and Lanham’s throwing musical communication into the mix complicates syntactic conjecture even further.

The easiest road of exploration seems to be the visual / verbal confrontation. Photographs or images in general force a confrontation with the At level; linguistic components imply the presence of a Through level. Although links need not be pictures, the way we deal with them often seems to be analogous to the difficult syntax presented by a photograph. Surface is always the quality that is dealt with first in a photograph, before we can move through into the conceptual communication beyond it. There’s a lot to think about!

* It occurs to me hours later that the reason why musical and linguistic syntax have coercively reached a higher level of development is that they are essentially temporally dependant interactions, whereas pictorial communication is substantially atemporal.

Eastern Oklahoma

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A Classical Forensic Oration

[As I was thinking about writing this, I realized that I have internalized the structure of Cicero’s advice on forensic orations so much that I tend to write most things that way— I thought I’d just go ahead and label the parts in case there are any potential rhetoric students out there.]

Art and Belief


Christ! A blasphemous expletive, and a typically ironic one as well. Part of what makes an utterance profane is violation of societal norms, and taking the Christian name for human embodiment of God in vain is a perfectly symmetrical case. Christ, in the normal context, is a physical manifestation of belief, belief embodied in flesh. Christ, as an expletive, is a mental conception of disbelief, disbelief with no embodied referent. Belief and disbelief are frequently the axis around which humanity turns.


Coleridge is often quoted on the subject of belief in an abbreviated manner, transposed wherever a “suspension of disbelief” might be required. The full context of this now cliché phrase is worth revisiting. Wordsworth and Coleridge sought to excite the sympathy of readers, using ordinary life modified by the “colours of imagination”:

In this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads,” in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.
Works of art are indeed shadows of ourselves, and those who work to create them strive to embody and animate them with faith in the species of truth that art represents. People who quote Coleridge seldom complete the sentence— which ends with the constitution of a variety of faith. Skepticism is the destroyer of art. Fighting against skepticism is in some ways an analogous project to that of Jesus Christ, whose mission was to redeem man though acts of faith. Is it any wonder that Western artists would adopt Christ-like stances in relationship to their work?


No sane human would attempt to model themselves after an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God. However, Christ as “God made flesh” is a more accessible paradigm. Paradoxical qualities attributed to Christ provide a good frame to evaluate the products of would be creators on earth. Art began in ritual practice, and the theological descriptors kenosis and plerosis describe attributes not just of the qualities of art, but the attitude an artist takes regarding self in relationship to “human interest and semblance of truth” that an artist seeks to convey.


Kenotic theology focuses on Christ’s renunciation of his supernatural qualities; he emptied himself of omniscience and omnipresence while incarnate; he became flesh to instill belief in man through becoming man. This is a relatively new outlook on Christ, as is the view that an artist's work is not about who they are, but should instead deal with larger concerns alone. Modern poets who have renounced the importance of their personality or individual selves are in a sense emulating the behavior of Christ by giving up the very qualities that make them human.

In an abstract sense, artists of this type want to be Christ through an artistic ritual of emptying themselves to make room for a conception of the totality of the human condition through kenosis. TS Eliot seems to be the prime example in this case, but it does not take much of a stretch to see the utility of this viewpoint in other art forms, particularly the idea of disinterested documentary non-fiction and photography.

The opposite ritual form, plerosis, emulates more closely the effect of a second coming. It is a ritual of filling, of completing the world in its totality. In a traditional Christian view, man was incomplete and without the gifts of love, compassion, and forgiveness of sin which Christ delivered to us. In a sense, some artists celebrate the gift of Christ by emulating it— filling the world with the greatest gifts of God, which include our capacity for self-consciousness. Shelley's extravagance comes to mind, as does the rhetorical florish of William Blake.

Ultimately, those who try to create do so by engaging in a practice which either models itself on a behavioral perception of an authentic messiah, or simulates the effects of one by aiming at completion and totality. A theological model need not be far fetched, even for artists who do not adhere to the Christian faith. These attributes are a deep structure in the fabric of Western society.


Though these attitudes toward artistic creation are opposite, they are both viable positions for a creator operating in the shadow of a Western Christian paradigm. Perhaps because they are both unattainable absolutes, any effort at maintaining strict boundaries of production is doomed. Any model of intention is always flawed, because the motives for creation are as bountiful as the cultures which form them.


However, studying the oscillation between kenotic and plerotic modes of artistic creation— modes of generating a suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment— can provide a way of reconciling how artists “transfer an inner nature” into an outward practice of production by such contradictory means. Art attempts to save what is best in us; the methods of art can tell us much about the motives and the mechanics of constituting belief. Art is messianic when pushed to the extremes, at least in the moment that we have faith.

So, there you have it. A blog entry and an example of Roman rhetoric rolled into one. I don’t teach the Latin names to my students; instead, I call the divisions Introduction, Background, Claim [I don’t believe in thesis statements; it’s a horrible misnomer for the work that this section is supposed to do —partition, division, or claim are better terms], Argument, Refutation, and Conclusion.


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My father, and my Grandmother Goldie, probably in the late 30sClass in class

I'm perhaps a bit overly sensitive to class issues in education. I spent some time talking to my father about class and was really surprised that now, he claims he never felt any pressure from it. He didn't say that when I was growing up. He came to California in the second wave of "okie migration" in the forties. He told me that okies were horribly discriminated against and looked down upon.

His mother, Goldie, was a cook for a sorority at Oklahoma University in the 30s. Though my dad was a blue-collar eighth-grade dropout, I found out on this trip that a few of my cousins were not quite so poor. One of them was the director of the women's studies program at Baylor University in the 40s or 50s. At the time, that would have meant "home economics" classes of course.

Dad always looked good in a suit, but that's not the way I think of him. He was always in khakis with chambray work-shirts. He worked in the oilfields as a welder first, and later as a pumper, and as a maintenance person in charge of steam-injection wells. He took some correspondence school classes in math, and got his literature education from the public library. Mom said that when they first got married, she was scared to death because my dad would sometimes stay up all night reading. She thought she was doing something wrong.

Dad had great taste in literature.

Most of what he recommended to me growing up were canonical texts. Shakespeare, and all the major Russians were his favorites. But he didn't learn any of this in class; he learned it by being a good reader.

He hated his own father, and refused to go to his funeral. Jess Ward was an alcoholic, a gambler, and a total mess. He would threaten his family with a gun, and my father was always put in the position of defending his mother and siblings against the onslaught. His little brother Wendell was more of a free-spirit, played 12-string guitar, and married a woman who was a spiritualist and medium. When I found this picture of Wendell, my father, and Jess in 1944, I was reminded of all those snapshots of Kerouac and Cassidy. The distance between these sons and their father seems almost palpable in this photograph, and the man standing in the middle is much closer to the father I know.

Wendell, my father, and Jess Ward


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I took The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts by Richard Lanham with me on my little “vacation.” The issues discussed in this group of essays pivot around the role of “great men” in the future of education. Synchronously, these are the same issues which Loren and Diane have been confronting in Emerson’s American Scholar.

Lanham’s perspective is a positive one. I had been thinking quite a bit during the long drive about the kenosis / plerosis opposition, and have a huge thought bubble about it that I need to write out. Far from the rather ethereal questions of artistic intentionality, these problems are also wrapped up in what “education” really is and does. There will be much more to come on that, but what Lanham’s argument centers upon is the changing ways that the humanist center of “core courses” in university education must shift in order to accommodate the changing demands of technology. There’s a lot to work out, but in the end, the role of so called classics should be strengthened and not eroded by technology.

In brief, Lanham proposes that the center of the university should not be upper level “disciplined” study, but should rather give greater emphasis to an integrative approach which blurs the boundaries of what we normally think of as “education.” He makes two suggestions as to how this might be done: one would be to make first year composition the gateway to upper level study through “writing across the curriculum” efforts (already being done at many major universities) or, by renewing the relevance of library and information science (LIS) and making it a similarly cross-disciplinary emphatic introduction to the world of education. I think these are worthy aims, myself. Though the shift in emphasis in LIS seems to be primarily manifest at the graduate level, Lanham's proposals seem to anticipate a lot of what has happened in the time since the book was written.

One of the most striking images to me was Lanham’s perception of students at a university as “visiting anthropologists” who must negotiate moving from tribe to tribe (academic departments) who are all convinced that they have the answer to the world’s problems, and that their field of study is the only one worthy place to be, that is, if you are a smart person. However, they all speak different languages and have different customs. In Lanham’s model, it is the students that are the “smart ones” because they must learn to cope in ways that the ossified departments themselves are incapable of.

I like that. I notice that Lanham's 1994 book is not listed in the Bedford Bibliography, but his 1983 book, Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, is. The abstract sounds promising:

Nine essays on the place of the humanities in the university curriculum. Unless literature and composition are reconciled, not only will the study of literature perish but our nation will descend into illiteracy and political conflicts among our disparate languages and cultures. Humanities teachers must abandon the notion that language is a neutral medium for exchanging information or expressing oneself. If language were employed only for such rational purposes, humanistic study would be superfluous. A more accurate notion of human motivation is now emerging from interdisciplinary work in the biological and social sciences. This “post-Darwinian synthesis” depicts human beings as motivated by the desire to play games as well as to satisfy appetites. Humanism can offer crucial insight into game- playing motives, particularly as expressed in styles of language use, and into the ways human beings collaboratively construct self and reality. In the final essay, Lanham outlines the UCLA composition program designed to inculcate “post-Darwinian humanism.”

In The Electronic Word Lanham has clearly extended his thesis quite a bit, and sets up what he calls a sort of bistable oscillation between clarity and obscurity which is and should be the core of western thought. This oscillation may be at a higher frequency during the shift to non-codex based texts, but the core vibrations are the same. In the end, it’s been coming to this for a long time. Technology isn’t the death of our old text-based culture so much as it is the flowering of it. I like that idea too. This is big stuff and it will take a while to make sense of it all.


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I've always liked driving; this is me behind the wheel in March of 1959

A word of advice to travellers who might want to cross Arkansas on Interstate 40: don't.

It took 4 1/2 hours to get halfway across (Little Rock to Ft. Smith) where it usually takes two, due to all the construction.

On the way back, I took the scenic route on old highway 10. It was more fun anyway. Sometimes it's good to know the back-roads.

I didn't need to go too far into Oklahoma. I turned off about thirty miles before the big bridge disaster, but it was still a mess.


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Wood s lot gestured at a listing of Rhetoric resources.

As is typical of me, I can't keep my mouth shut. The web links listed (with one exception) have been on my sidebar for many months. The one that isn't, Rhetorica is focused on political rhetoric (which doesn't interest me much, except as a teaching device).

A point of pedantry though: his glossary of rhetorical tropes contains one boner— anastrophe is defined reasonably correctly, but the example is not an anastrophe. It is a chiasmus (inversion of structure, bookended symmetrically for emphasis). A much better example of anastrophe would be Yoda-speak: "Jedi I am." However, rhetoric is much more than remembering all the Greek and Latin words for things. The slant of the references on Blood's list are primarily classical, with only one exception: Kenneth Burke.

I'm the odd-man out in thinking that Kenneth Burke is a putz. His dramatistic pentad is just journalism restated, and his view of language use as "symbolic" puts me off. Sad that he's the only thing past Rome and Greece represented on the bibliographic list. I can't resist a few comments.

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student is an expensive textbook that no one I know uses. Meant for first year writing classes, it's really more of a graduate student's tool. However, it is absolutely excellent. It presents clearly all the tropes, styles, etc., while also providing overviews of both writing pedagogy and the history of Rhetoric. As dense as it is, it's perhaps easier to read than the primary texts involved (of which it provides great excerpts) and contains a number of great samples for rhetorical analysis. Great choice, but not really for beginners. The Art of Rhetoric is a cheap Penguin copy of Aristotle's Rhetoric, available online. It's more of a theory piece, really, not a practical guide— it is fragmentary, more like lecture notes than a full treatise. Aristotle's perspective on Rhetoric really needs to be read across several of his works, a job that Classical Rhetoric does quite well. Cicero and Quintillian are great, but a bit distant from modern rhetorical praxis. Many efforts have been made to update them through the ages, and one of the worst is listed in the ensuing list. Hugh Blair is for aesthetes, and this treatise has more to do with speech than writing. Starting with Ramus, Rhetoric was eviscerated. Blair, Campbell and Whately in the Romantic period completed the job of ripping out its epistemic heart: invention (inventio for those who prefer Latin). Blech! It wasn't until I.A. Richards in the early twentieth century that Rhetoric began to get back on track.

Asking about Rhetoric is like asking about "science." Uh, which version (or subgenre) do you want? There is no real need for me to compile an alternative bibliography, because one already exists, and as for great examples, many of the best speeches by women are available online at Gifts of Speech.

The entire text of The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing is available online. The introductory section covers the development of the "new" discipline of Rhetoric, and its conflict with Blair's belles-lettres. Matthew Arnold, taking Blair up a notch, is largely responsible for the attitude I was railing against yesterday. The bibliography is neatly sectioned by topic, with classical and contemporary perspectives on Rhetoric. If you're interested in Rhetoric (not just teaching writing), this is perhaps the single best place to start. It has abstracts of every book and article listed, and provides a great shopping list for those who want to know more about Rhetoric.

On another topic— Tom, if you're reading this, an attempt has been made to index bloggers geographically. It's called The Pepys Project.

Now, I'm off to Ft. Smith for a few days. Thanks for commenting, folks!

Making Meaning

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Making meaning

In one of the oddest search queries I've ever seen in my referer logs, I show up as number 7 for Tolstoy, art is a form of communication, a vehicle which the artist can use to communicate his feelings and emotion; it is a "means of intercourse between man and man".

Now this certainly beats being number 218 for mom bent over tits, though it does make me wonder. Who would go through 217 results for that query before landing on my site? I feel certain they were disappointed. You can't please all possible audiences.

But I don't want to be a snob. I was cleaning out a bunch of old academic mail today (obviously), and ran across some stuff that made smoke roll out my ears. I won't name this guy (an English professor), but people like him contribute to the reasons why I think I prefer to continue in writing instruction rather than try to scale the battlements of the literature guardians:

My problem with encouraging "writing" is that for the most part it's based on what I consider false premises:

  1. Everyone not only can but should be a "writer."

  2. "Writing" is a priori either therapeutic or consciousness-raising.
The author of this is a major scholar. Starting with the first point: it (to me at least) has been shown convincingly that writing is what has made modern society possible. Without it, we'd be back to trying to memorize everything. From his view, "writing" is best done by only the qualified, elite folks; it is not a skill that is developed, but rather an innate "talent" that you are born into. He's talking himself out of a job. If talents are innate, then what's the point of education? This part is just a continuation of an age-old Greek debate. The second part, regarding "consciousness-raising" goes right back to the problem of education. If learning to write is not educational (and therefore consciousness raising) then why are people employed in humanities departments? As for the first part of this "false" premise, I would refer him to the work of James Pennebaker who has done scientific study on such factors as T-cell counts before and after writing activities (after traumatic events), which show that people who do try to express themselves become healthier. The first premise is purely classist; the second premise, pure ignorance.

But that's not the worst thing I've heard come out of a teacher's mouth. I remember sitting in a classroom where a writing "teacher" said: "Not everyone belongs in college, the world needs auto-mechanics too." I suppose that's why I almost feel insulted when people call this an "academic blog."

I will never be like these people. If being an elitist snob is a prerequisite for admission, you can count me out now. I like to think that I can help people more effectively "make meaning" in their writing. Everyone should be a writer. That doesn't mean that they will ever find an audience outside a small circle of friends, but it does mean that their lives would be better if they picked up the craft of writing to help them make sense in the world.


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I picked up a couple of new vocabulary words, kenosis and plerosis. Being a lifelong agnostic has left me a little out of the loop regarding a lot of theological lingo. These terms were appropriated by Richard Nanian in his doctoral thesis regarding poetic function. I thought it was an interesting idea. Language meaning moves between two limits: perfect emptiness and perfect everythingness. Midway between, I suppose, would be Lockean language (one word = one meaning). Movement toward nothingness is kenosis, movement toward totality is plerosis. Nanian is drawing on these concepts from Sewell, who called Mallarmé the poet of nothingness and Rimbaud the poet of everythingness. Nanian's thesis is that the Romantics were mostly plerotic poets. This mode of explanation is much in keeping with Yeats's gyres and system (on a two-dimensional level) in A Vision.

I get really involved with language, and as others have noted, and always like to look at specific words. My post this morning made me wonder about the history of clitoris. The first citation in the OED is from 1615; writers waited until the Renaissance to label it? I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense. What is fun is the description of labia, though:

1615 CROOKE Body of Man 226 These Ligaments..do degenerate into a broad and sinewy slendernes..vppon which the Clitoris cleaueth and is tyed.
The proposed etymology of clitoris is from a Greek verb meaning "to shut." But I digress; I really wanted to save Nanian's diagrams

Aphra Behn

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Note to self: explore Aphra Behn.

It seems that (his)tories of the novel I've read completely ignore her. She wrote an epistolary novel fifty years before Richardson. She wrote in a first person narrative voice long before Defoe, and may deserve a great deal of attention in the development of the novel. Learn something new every day (if you pay attention).

Oh, and one more thing— calling women "broads" may come from a game? From Rictor Norton:

In a supposedly predominant form of lesbian intercourse, one woman lies at full stretch on top of another, and they mutually rub their 'flat' pudenda together for stimulation. In 19th-century lesbian slang this was called a 'flat-fuck'. All of this is supposedly analogous to card games involvingthe taking of tricks, in which one playing card (or 'flat') is laid on top of another. The reference is to horizontal planes that don't require vertical instruments.

The playing-card derivation, however, does depend on how early playing cards were called 'flats'. I see that the earliest citation in the OED is dated 1812, when 'flats' is called a cant term for cards. No doubt the term arose earlier (e.g. 'broads' is cited for 1789), but how much earlier? John O'Neil's 1698/1699 citation for "a New Game Call'd Flats with a Swinging Clitoris" is a great deal earlier than any citation describing playing cards as 'flats'. But it clearly draws upon some sort of game, perhaps a betting game using flat games counters or broad-pieces.

An Army of One

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An Army of One

Watching the third season finale of the Sopranos, I was amused by the conversation about sending Anthony Jr. to military school. The US Army’s slogan is “an army of one.”

“What if this ‘army of one’ decides it doesn’t want to go over the top of the foxhole?” Tony asked.

“What if he doesn’t want to be an army and would rather be a veterinarian?” Carmella wondered.

The classical notion of life as a battle just doesn't mesh well with getting by in the real world; self-reliance doesn't have to be militaristic. Often, the transcendentalist notion of “self-reliance” is bashed and smashed in the modern world of social modeling. More often than that, the conception of “the romantic self” is demonized in scholarly circles as a myth to be overthrown by “socially situated” postmodern praxis.

But this romantic myth never existed. It comes from a misreading of the Romantics, and I suspect the Transcendentalists too. I blame TS Eliot (I always do), and to a lesser extent, Jerome McGann. There are lots of names for it: “the egotistical sublime” (a label more properly applied to Milton, I think, than Wordsworth) or, “the romantic genius.” There are six major canonical figures in British Romanticism. It is odd to me that this misconception should be applied wholesale, when it really only applies to two writers of this revolutionary period. The period was one of intense social activism, and deep exploration of notions of self which fueled the American Transcendentalists.

McGann attempted to shape all of Romanticism in the image of Byron (last of the big six), though he later retracted much of his thesis regarding The Romantic Ideology. Eliot shaped it into the image of Wordsworth (second in line, but in Eliot's time it was the big five rather than the big six and Wordsworth was number one— Blake was added later). Most of the popular misconception is based in a misreading of the word genius. Genius, in the eighteenth century sense, was not so much an individual attribute, but a quality of connection with a larger spiritual (and social) wholeness. Genius, derived from genie, was really another word for spirit.

One of Blake’s (first of the big six) primary concepts was “the poetic genius” which might best be translated as the spirit of god, in men. His conception of the “self” was not unary, but rather fragmented and split into four “Zoas” which were constantly at enmity with each other. Wordsworth chose himself as a topic, but was far more concerned with the spirit of god reflected in nature rather than man, and unlike Blake— Wordsworth's concept of self was unary. Coleridge (third of the big six) differs from Wordsworth in that his later concepts of self were trinitarian: reason, religion, and will. Reason was “a science of cosmopolitanism without country” (sounds pretty social to me). Keats, fourth of the big six, was big on the dissolution of identity in great authors (negative capability), and Shelley (the fifth) was nearly Buddhist in proclaiming that he didn’t exist as an individual, but as only as a momentary manifestation of the “one mind”. That leaves Byron, as the sole purveyor of the Faustian individual who controlled the world through his will. Only two, of all these writers, were champions of romantic individualism!

These guys all had very little in common, really. So why does “romantic” have such a negative connotation? It pisses me off. All were socially conscious (except perhaps Keats), so why does romantic mean an anti-social, egotistical, individual in the context of contemporary social criticism? Coleridge put it succinctly: they “would sacrifice the each to the shadowy idol of all.” Rereading The American Scholar by Emerson shows that these people were hardly simplistic when it comes to sorting out just what is important. We are both individuals, and social creatures. One cannot be sacrificed at the expense of the other. All of these people were hardly naive, and never believed half of what they are accused of today.

Like I said, it just pisses me off. Fragments, removed from context, paint an ugly picture of “solitary geniuses” who slaved and suffered; it’s utter bullshit. None of the British Romantics were foolish enough to believe that there is “one true self” except maybe Byron and Wordsworth. While I enjoy Byron a lot, I've got to side with I.A. Richards' contention that "Wordsworth was the greatest poem that Coleridge ever wrote."

Expressive linking, again

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Link anxiety

Just one last iteration, with a twist. The misreadings of some of these posts has been as informative as the original dispute. I think I figured something out (famous last words). Where this all started was a disagreement with Alex regarding link-heavy blogs as an act of self expression. My problem with his proposal (which I don’t think I misread) was in one sentence: “I think that link-heavy blogs are as much about who the blogger is as a content-heavy blog.”

My initial answer was: in an anthropological sense, yes, in a rhetorical sense, no. I offered the thesis that the implied “method” behind the linkage can lend a hazy impression of “self” but that links, in and of themselves, fail the criteria of interiority which “expression” implies. I was wrong. I wasn't wrong about linking's metaphoric nature, and still believe they have characteristics of tenor and vehicle. In order to communicate, metaphors and links require both. I thought at the time that without surrounding text (tenor— as in quotes, reaction, etc.) links weren’t communicative acts. I forgot about implicature. As pragmatic units (in the linguistic sense of accomplishing work), links can be expressive under certain conditions, and are always communicative. I disagree with Adrian Miles contention that:

The link does not require, need, or even recognize a codified set of rules for what may or may not be linked, either in terms of origins or destinations. To this extent the link always presents itself as a virtual outside to the codified norms of language, that is to grammar, syntactic organization, and rhetoric.
The link, outside of context, is not pragmatic. However, links are never presented without context. Often, this context is implied rather than overt. Links can have a natural meaning, i.e., inside a menu or directory of links, where they are strictly referential. Or, links can have a non-natural meaning for intentional communication. This is labeled as meaning-nn by Grice, and paraphrased by Levinson in these terms:
S meant-nn z by uttering U if and only if:

(i) S intended U to cause some effect z in recipient H

(ii) S intended (i) to be achieved simply by H recognizing the intention (i)
Though this stuff is from discourse analysis, it should be reasonably clear unless you're totally allergic to algebra or logic (Speaker, Hearer, Utterance). People seldom babble unintentionally, and never unintentionally link. Analyzing what is going on in conversations or links requires some sort of context, and context is always the problematic part. Within an implied context, link utterances are linguistically structured: [I believe this is] scary. [I feel this is] funny.

These textual utterances qualify as expressives. Do these utterances reveal much about my “self”? No more than any other utterance, really. Links have no special status beyond being complex placeholders for meaning (like metaphors, symbols, words) and are just building blocks through which we express intention within a context. Even in experimental hypertext documents there is an implied intention to the linkages which is linguistic. The absence of context on some link-driven blogs drives me to say that I find them less interesting. I think it’s a case of preferring type (i) meaning-nn utterances to type (ii), where I am supposed to be amused by discerning an implied intention solely by a “linking=cool” context. That is a distinction that I did not make before. I think these types of utterances are hardly novel or revolutionary when compared to other behaviors in the global discursive community.

In the end it's really a matter of degree. My preference (obviously) is toward greater density. The density of utterances is generally less on a link-driven blog, not more (links are selectively metaphoric, not additive to the author's text). I still do not think they are as revealing of personality. However, I can now more comfortably concede that they can be expressive.

See, I’m not afraid to point out when I’m wrong!


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everyone needs konjolaMedicine and Madison Avenue

For a slightly different look at the relationship of health and rhetoric, this exhibition was just what I needed. I don't mean to imply, in a lot of my ramblings, that there is nothing new that has occurred as the result of the impact of technology on expression and representation. Where I differ from most of the other online theorists (both scholarly and non-scholarly) is my perception of how these changes are unique.

One of the threads I find most interesting is the increasing importance of testimony, and how that testimony is validated and authorized. This isn't new; it is descended from the earliest novels from the eighteenth century. The rallying cry of much postmodern thinking (particularly about the web) is that it does away with conventional concepts of authority. I don't agree. I think it represents a shift in authority, almost regressively, into the importance of establishing first person narratives.

Another interesting thread is the shift back almost to a renaissance level of punning behaviors. Jokes become an important driving force in our linguistic interaction, as does labeling, listing, quantifying these forces of change. How we represent ourselves, and our world, is increasingly distanced by irony thus undermining the counterforces of authority that constantly try to reestablish themselves.

It's an interesting playground, indeed.

A playground of signs. Not all signs function in the same manner; that's my problem with the extensions of metaphor (the fundamental linguistic building block) into hardcore modernist symbolism or hypertextual rhizomatic networks of linkage. Metaphor enables all communication, but metaphor does not require the deep conceptual complexity sometimes attributed to it as it moves to greater distances from actuality. Sometimes, it's just play.

As if said (before the dreadful loss), sometimes links are just gifts.

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