Amateur Theatricals, from Commercial Photography of Today, 1914
This week has been an interesting one for sure. While I wish I could have gone to Chicago to blogwalk, car difficulties and mountains of snow have interfered. Instead, I’ve installed a new monitor and found out just how crappy my blog really looks.
The weird side effect of getting a new 20 inch monitor is that it has made me really appreciate my Powerbook. I hadn’t used it that much until now, since it just has a 12” screen and my eyesight is not as great as it once was. Because the new monitor makes it easy to operate both my PC and the Mac on the same screen, I’ve gotten a nasty case of Mac-love. The dual monitor set-up is really seamless and fun. Something tells me I’ll be learning how to use the Mac effectively a lot faster now that I can see what I’m doing.
I looked at my old test install of WordPress and thought about switching, but then I looked at the fragmented docs and decided I just don’t have time to take that on. Instead, I’ve done a test install of MT 3.14 and decided that I like it. It may be a while before I get a new version of the blog together, but now I’m motivated. I’d like to create a version that scales better on larger monitors.
Posts are likely to be sporadic for a while because I can’t stand looking at the 3.0 version of this Public Address anymore. tPA 4.0 is now in the works. I want a new blog to go with the new climate and new school. I meant to do that over the summer, but moving was too much of a pain. Amateur hour is open again: novice Mac user codes new blog templates—film at eleven.
The forecast high temperature tomorrow is -5f (-20c). It is warm inside though and the flytrap has no frostbite.
PORTRAIT OF JEANNE SAMARY, BY P. AUGUSTE RENOIR.
Though my partner pretty much has the redhead market sewed-up, I ran across this one and it caught my eye. Reading a little more about Renoir, I was struck by a comment attributed to him in his final phase. After 1890, he was reduced to painting with a brush strapped to his hand from a wheelchair. When asked if that made things more difficult, he said “One does not paint with one’s hands.”
The Speed of Thought
This has been a weird year in blogging for me. I haven’t written nearly as much as I used to, mostly because of moving and dealing with intense pressure at school—finishing a master’s thesis and starting a Ph.D. program. The thoughts that I’ve had, if I attempted to reconstruct them, are fragmentary at best and incoherent at worst. I’m somewhat comfortable with the fragments, and disconcerted by my own incoherence.
I used to be able to spew things out nearer to the speed I was thinking at. But I’ve grown a bit alienated by the distance generated between what “normal” people are concerned with and what I actually care about. Often, it seems best to just keep my mouth shut because it takes so long to defend what I really want to say. So after periods of hiatus I can only seem to cough up small bits from my research that might be interesting to some people, and surrender any attempt at coherence. It takes nearly everything I can muster to create something comprehensible out of it all. I used to feel pretty confident with my ability to tell people what I was thinking about, but somehow I’ve lost my way.
That’s about all the year-end reflection I can muster for the moment. Life is good in most ways. My emotional life is better than it has been in years, but my intellectual life is so turbulent and battered by deep doubts about nearly every position that I take that often I feel it would be better if I just shut up about it. I have done that from time to time, to try to regain some sanity. But it’s worked against me, really. These fleeting thoughts disappear all too soon if I don’t write something about them, no matter how disconnected or incoherent. So that’s what I’ve been doing here, mostly. I miss trying to come up with clever stories and such, but there has been little time for that. I traded them in on a little more reflective time—time to try and make sense of the “pictures” in my head.
Over the course of the year, my traffic here has dropped by half. I am kind of glad. I often feel like I’ve “violated” the spirit of blogging by being more selfish and insular this year—I sometimes feel bad for the long-suffering readers who drift in and might wonder what happened to the “early funny Jeff.” Perhaps that side is closed for the duration of graduate school. I hope not, but I can’t worry about it that much. Right now I’m thinking too fast.
Poetry, music, I have loved, and yet
Because of those new dead
That come into my soul and escape
Confusion of the bed,
Or those begotten or unbegotten
Perning in a band
I bend my body to the spade
Or grope with dirty hand.
Or those begotten or unbegotten.
For I would not recall
Some that being unbegotten
Are not individual,
But copy some one action
Mouding it of dust or sand
I bend my body to the spade
Or grope with dirty hand.
An old ghosts thoughts are lightning
To follow is to die;
Poetry and music I have banished,
But the stupidity
Of root, shoot, blossom or clay
Makes no demand.
I bend my body to the spade
Or grope with dirty hand.
W.B. Yeats, “The Spirit Medium”
I feel totally baked. I hadn’t intended to take a hiatus, but circumstances sort of dictated it. One more research paper to write tomorrow, on a subject I care nothing about, and then I can breathe again. I normally get a little depressed in the holiday season, but this time it seems a little worse. It’s mostly because of the ideas there wasn’t time to explore. Too many obligations and too few reflective thoughts to match the deep chasms I leapt across.
I wish I could take back the 14,000 or so words I’ve written this past week. They seem hopelessly confused and ill-structured. But underneath, there are might be something of worth. Unfortunately they are quickly becoming ghosts in my mind buried under endless busywork. For some reason, today I missed poetry. I decided to read some Yeats. It is far more interesting than thrilling topics like academic portal design.
There is a skeleton somewhere in this dirt. As soon as my head stops spinning, maybe I can reconstruct the bones. But maybe it is best to just face forward, and leave these thoughts alone. Christmas is no time for a séance.
from The Russo-Japanese War, 1904
Can You Unpack That?
One of the most popular phrases of people around me these days. Sometimes, I’d like to shout no! I feel like I’ve become lost in a Peircian forest, where everything is spiraling out of sight. Cognition building on cognition until it becomes hard to figure out where I began. It’s like this weird journey that can only happen after your bags are packed. If you continually walk back inside to check your luggage to make sure that you’ve remembered your toothbrush, you can never leave. I know it’s part of the process, but sometimes it seems like I’ll never get the model I’m thinking of together if I keep unpacking.
Of course, I can see the bold overconfidence in saying something like that. It’s the job of your peers to keep you honest—to make sure that you haven’t thrown in a toaster instead of a hairdryer. But I feel strangely close to having a complete bag. I’d like to carry it somewhere instead of just continually picking it up and putting it down to check the contents. I was reading an article by McMullin on models yesterday that argued convincingly that a model precedes a theory, not the other way around. I’m light-years away from a theory, but reasonably close to a model that I can look at and test. I know that no one outside my head can see it; it’s hard to talk about. But for some reason I can’t stop trying—hence, the continual solicitations: Can you unpack that?
I can’t get Tom Wait’s Train Song out of my head:
What made my dreams so hollow
was standing at the depot
with a steeple full of swallows
that could never ring the bell
I think I’ll be happy when I can just find the bell, let alone ring it.
I don’t get out much anymore.
I was reminded of why tonight. Put me up in front of a classroom, or in a group of people these days, and I feel like a monkey clashing his cymbals (or perhaps symbols) together.
Sure, it’s entertaining for a little while. But it must get tiresome fairly quickly. Perhaps there should be an explicit warning: don’t get him started, because you’ll never know how long it will be before he shuts up.
Aside: at one point tonight, responding to the suggestion that things look differently when you’ve read more, I answered that it wasn’t possible to continue my pace of reading without running out of room in my house. I don’t really think I need to read that much more—it’s just that I need to understand more. In hindsight I recognize the rampant egotism that this suggests. I meant it humbly, because I feel a little stupider, and a little more well-read each day. Reading a lot isn’t the same thing as being smart. Nobody seems to get that.
My morning (afternoon for most people) ritual has become somewhat mundane. I thread my way past the mountain of books in my work space, and then delete the ten or twenty spam comments on the various blog presences I have scattered about. I tell myself, as I close the entries, that there can’t be that many entries left open to attract crap. And yet, each morning it’s the same. Little strides. The latest round has been the promotion of chemicals that cause hair to grow. If they only knew; somehow, I don’t think I have problems in that area.
I haven’t been blogging much, mostly because I’m just caught up in processing too many things. I hope to litter this place back up with some quotes which I always scrounge to find. That might lend a disconnected air for a while. But I think part of my hesitation in blogging has been an overarching concern about coherence. I try my best each week to attain it, and usually fall short in one way or another. There have just been too many disparate things. It’s really weird going from Heidigger and Levinas to Vygotsky and Piaget, from Ricoeur and Richards to Aristotle and Wittgenstein, ad infinitum. Too much stuff. Each one lurking there like a mountain reminding me just how little I really understand.
And worst of all, there is the effortless way that people like Ricoeur and W.J.T. Mitchell glide along the ethereal heights, stepping on the tips of people’s thoughts like they were glacial peaks. Though sometimes it feels as if they are leaping from theory to theory, it’s more like a casual stride in which the pedestrian feels a total sense of control. I don’t have that. I look at these things and think to myself that they seem like golden strands begging to be woven, and yet my needles are broke.
I skip in the same groove, wishing I could catch my stride. But I can’t find it, and I keep falling down.
I hadn’t really planned on any sort of hiatus. It’s a little weird to watch this blog turn into a brown lozenge when the spammers finally locate the few open entries and force it into remission. There are a lot of things I’d like to write about, but I keep getting caught up in busywork.
I had hoped that moving up into higher levels of education might mean that there would be less pure tedium—in the form of assignments targeted at a regurgitation of the “party line” espoused by a particular discipline. So far, that is only partially true. Two of my classes are intense theory seminars. These are great. It’s amazing sitting around with a group of motivated (well, mostly) people who read and respond to texts. It’s not so great for my third class, which is run using a “constructionist” pedagogical approach. That class has been nothing but an endless stream of busywork targeted at keeping the “learning community” engaged with fitting poor theoretical models into hypothetical practices. The teacher seems mostly absent, other than just to send yet another useless assignment into the ether. There is no discussion of the theory, really, just endless application to dubious situations which we are forced to create. It ties up at least two days of my week with forced group work.
Then there’s the matter of teaching a class I’ve never taught before, and having to develop material for that. The theory seminars are both so excellent that I don’t really question my decision to go this route, but that third class�
Enough of a vent. I’m just tired of staring at that brown lozenge.
Wrestling with Pudding
Adjusting to actually having a schedule, one filled with tasks and deadlines, has been really difficult for me. I’m having endless streams of ideas that have to be dealt with quickly, and they leave few traces before they move on. There isn’t time to write them out, forcing them to coalesce into some sort of sense. I’ve had to write more on shorter deadlines than ever before. The primary problem is that I take writing too seriously, and simple tasks become inordinately complex.
That’s why my blog has turned into an essay collection lately; I have little time to read other blogs or even think about conversing. I miss just throwing out the idea of the moment, but when you’re forced to write in a directed manner towards some end it really does stifle your urge to wander. I realize that this is part of the process of graduate school, it’s just that I don’t like it much. The dictum of “be specific” is a necessary attribute of scholarship; a person has to pick a narrow spot to plow and stay on target. However, in most ways, this is the death of creativity—and I’m really bad at it.
Writing my Master’s thesis was a big challenge on that score. My advisor here called it “a heroic failure” and I can’t say that I disagree with him much. The problem that concerns me is too vast to cover in an essay, a book, or perhaps even in a lifelong series of books. To attempt to do it is, as he said, “wrestling with pudding.” Of course, having a dirty mind, I thought to myself—hey, that sounds fun.
However, writing it was an important thing for me. It gave me a better idea of what I could and could not do. Everything sort of disintegrates into larger levels of complexity when you look at it. There are only models and metaphors that skew your thinking into forcing everything to fit. Sometimes, when the model is unusual or ill-explored, it helps. But it’s always a simplification of a more complex thing; there is no one answer, only ranges of possibility. Writing coherently means limiting your possibilities to those that are manageable. I have a hard time figuring out just what “manageable” is.
The artist side of my personality wants to scream “don’t tell me I can’t do that—I can!” But the more practical side does realize that I can’t. I won’t live forever. It would be better to concentrate on something attainable and work towards it. Nonetheless, I’m a hopeless generalist who enjoys wrestling with pudding. It’s going to be hard to change. Until this point, scholar friends have told me that I might have my cake and eat it too—just wait until I finish the “apprenticeship” we’re all forced to do before returning to generality. Nonetheless, it seems that in order to create something of real value much of the pudding wrestling must cease.