March 2013 Archives

Columbarium_Blera.jpgEtruscan columbarium at Cava Buia, Blera, Italy.

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science. Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world, which is to say, the anthropomorphic world.

On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, Frederich Nietzsche.

One of the most difficult things to cope with this past few years is the constant confrontation with death. Since my mother died, the most common question that pops into my head is "does it really matter?" I watched her lose her mind, unafraid of death for the most part and quite accepting of it. What mattered mostly were the little things, the little bits of dignity that so slowly slipped away from her. For the last five or six years of her life, I called her everyday. That is, until she could no longer stay coherent long enough to speak on the phone. I missed those calls, as they became less and less frequent before her death. I'd like to be able to say she slipped away quietly into a dream, but it was more like she just got lost in a nightmare that she never woke up from. It was chilling, filled with paranoia and delusions, and unsettling to the core.

In a profound sense, my world just collapsed. Her passing wasn't "natural" to me the way my father's was. My father simply drove himself to the hospital and died. My mother faced a long, slow, and unpredictable decline. I'd been thinking up to this point that my life was improving, moving ahead. I had more respect, had managed a more secure financial outlook, had a secure and satisfying romantic relationship and an intellectual project that seemed all-consuming; but what happened to my mother threw me. Is this what really happens? Are people inevitably reducible to (streamlining Earl Butz) to the desire for comfortable shoes and a warm place to go to the bathroom?

I'm finally managing to get some distance from the problem, but nothing seemed very important after that beyond simple human kindness. I put down my scholarly projects due to a deep depression and an inability to concentrate, and moved to other pursuits that were more tangible and bound to objective realities. I didn't stop theorizing, so much as I directed my hive-building into other areas. For the first time in my life, I'm buying my own home. I disconnected my self from Universities for a time, and began a different sort of life that wasn't centered on the catacombs of scholarship, in a hut as far away from it as I could manage.

Whereas the man of action binds his life to reason and its concepts so that he will not be swept away and lost, the scientific investigator builds his hut right next to the tower of science so that he will be able to work on it and to find shelter for himself beneath those bulwarks which presently exist. And he requires shelter, for there are frightful powers which continuously break in upon him, powers which oppose scientific truth with completely different kinds of "truths" which bear on their shields the most varied sorts of emblems.(ibid)
mikelonis_sm.jpg

I hadn't really thought about the time I spent at the University of Minnesota that much until the past week or so, when I started thinking about Vicky Mikelonis. I was excited to take her class on "Models and Metaphors." We read deeply into metaphor theory, which I had first encountered in Paul Ricouer's The Rule of Metaphor which I read alone at University of Arkansas. I had a lot of trouble with it, and there really wasn't anyone there to ask about it. With Vicky's help it made a lot more sense the second time around, as did the volumes of theory we read along with it.  Vicky used Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense" as the capstone for that class. 

I hadn't thought about it until lately, when a colleague at SU mentioned teaching with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." The Orwell now horrifies me with its privileged white male perspective on language. I taught with it my first few semesters as a teacher and came to loathe and discard it quickly. It only took a few moments to remember the Nietzsche as a potential alternative view, with its major problem being that it would be incomprehensible to undergraduates while the Orwell is easily digested. Both see language as central to being human, tied to habit and convention and sometimes leading us astray. The difference is that Nietzsche accepts the inevitability of this rather than railing against it. The more I read the Orwell, the more I got Pete Townshend's "Won't get fooled again" stuck in my head. How barbarous to think that your own tired concept of language isn't just as barbarous as any that has been used before? I haven't been able to look away from the Nietzsche essay for the last week, and the more I looked at it the more I remembered Vicky.

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts. It seeks a new realm and another channel for its activity, and it finds this in myth and in art generally. (ibid)

We read glorious theories in that class, which always have some sort of fatal flaw. Vicky passed away in 2007, and I always wondered why she never wrote much on the subject of metaphor outside of pedagogical applications. She taught technical writing, primarily, and the things she taught made a deep impact on the world and her students. She could walk through the air of complex theories, never losing sight of the real and grounded human potentialities behind them. One of her favorite comparisons about the moment at which we truly "get" a metaphor and see its aptness, as the same sort of "ah-ha" moment that we get the punch-line of a joke. She took these theories and applied them to how people learned, not in a dry way, but in a way that made you smile with the sheer humanity of it all. She seemed fascinated and interested in my comparatively arcane research agenda (19th century photography), and unlike most of the professors I knew at UMN was always available just to chat about strange and beautiful things. I knew she was sick, but I never thought about her dying. She was always too busy living to get dragged down by death. In a strange coincidence, she was also the only woman besides my mother to consistently call me "Jeffrey" even though I frequently protested. 

I haven't read the Nietzsche since she passed, and since my mother passed. It takes on a new sense of urgency for me now, although the drive to compare, and shape metaphors was stronger then. Now, I'd rather build than write. I want to reshape my world, not conceptually but physically— and not as art, but as craft.

This drive continually confuses the conceptual categories and cells by bringing forward new transferences, metaphors, and metonymies. It continually manifests an ardent desire to refashion the world which presents itself to waking man, so that it will be as colorful, irregular, lacking in results and coherence, charming, and eternally new as the world of dreams. Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art. (ibid)

Sometimes I feel like I'm drifting away, only brought back when I shape actual objects to fill my world with. It's a struggle to be awake.

Clio is a Stanley Jordan fan

Off and on for the last year or so, I've been trying to listen to all my LPs. It's a major task, given that I've got a few thousand. But with my acquisition of a record cleaning machine it made sense. I'm doing it in alphabetical order, and I think today I'll manage to finish "J". I took a look through my archives, and I guess it's been almost two years— I think I got the cleaning machine for my birthday in 2011. It seems weird, and sad, that in all the time I've been writing I've never said anything about Ken Hunter— I think of him from time to time, and it's always with a smile. Ken was the one that got me listening to more jazz, and jazz of lighter varieties like Stanley Jordan.

I suppose one of the reasons why it becomes difficult to get up the energy or enthusiasm about writing is the fact that the majority of people that I'd really like to have as an audience are dead. Kenny was one of the first that I lost, and for the most bizarre of reasons. He moved away, a year or two before I left Bakersfield, to take a job as a prison guard on the coast of California. I heard, just after I arrived in Arkansas, that he was playing basketball one day and a blood clot tore loose in one of his legs and caused a heart attack. He died in the emergency room. He had just started a family, and the loss to them and his friends was devastating. It was one of those cases where you just can't understand why such a young, healthy guy is just suddenly gone. I'm not sure he was even 30. I don't think he was.

I met Ken when I was working at Leo's Stereo. He was one of the stock people, along with Wilson Gambi, (a Nigerian fellow that I liked as well). When you stepped off the floor to take a breather, Ken was always there to talk music with, and though we didn't always agree, we respected each other's opinions. One of the things that defined Kenny was his faith, and he would always joke around with the sinners who worked in that industry with very little sense of judgement. Salesman, aren't generally the most moral people, and for Ken even the most vile of us wasn't beyond redemption. He tried to preach, in subtle ways, in every act of kindness that got us all through the day smiling. I wasn't surprised that he moved on to being a prison guard. He wanted to make a difference in the world, and hanging out with the converted wasn't what he considered to be the most important thing to do.

I wasn't much interested in Christian music when I met him, and I suppose I'm still not that interested in it. But I was interested in Kenny's music. He never really recorded anything much that I know about, though I suppose it's possible since he was always in bands and some of those bands did go on to record. Mostly, I just went out to see him at coffeehouses and such.

Ken Hunter.jpg

I think about Ken every time I put on certain records. I cannot help but wonder how such a kind and sweet man could have just died like that, while so many of my less virtuous friends (including myself) seem to keep living. But thoughts of Kenny are always happy ones, because he simply wouldn't have wanted it an other way.

Kenny, Cornell, Louis, and DailyKenny, Cornel, Louis, and Daily circa 1994