Once in a while, a sentence so startling in its clarity just stops me in my tracks. I can’t stop thinking about it. It usually needn’t have anything to do with its context, or the subject of the writing that contains it. The reference is often outside, anagogical, and to a certain extent what holds me is nothing less than pure linguistic clarity. Today, it was this sentence from an article in the Spectator:

It is easy to move, hard to change.

Many substitutions could be performed for the pronoun here. The lack of a coordinating conjunction makes me ponder: “but?” “and?” “then?” — though no relation is really necessary. There is no implicit preference. However, in the American perspective, it is often taken for granted that movement and change are equivalent. They’re not. They aren’t necessarily causally related either. Movement does not, by necessity, engender change. In context, that is indeed the thought which this sentence is meant to convey, as this sentence preceeds it:

The alpine plants of Scotland will not evolve to cope with our warming weather: they will simply migrate up the mountains until they become extinct.

Beautiful. It made me wonder. Was moving from California to Arkansas a change, or only a movement?

Moving wasn’t easy. Succumbing to divorce complicated it significantly. Giving up is hard. Humans are more complex than alpine plants. We draw upon our surroundings to constitute our identities, and for this reason, I suspect we formulate that age-old equivalence of movement with change. Perhaps it’s not just an American thing after all— quest-romance is built upon the myths of spiritual rebirth. Perhaps change is slow, while movement is fast.

Of course this is all counter to Gould’s view on evolution, the article that started this train of thought. Evolutionary change strikes like a lightning-bolt, rendering mating between the new species and the old impossible. When perpetual movement (and change) is part of the cultural aesthetic, estrangement seems inevitable. O well. That’s a lot of mileage out of eight words in a sentence.

Yesterday’s favorite sentence was substantially more complex, from Nabokov’s Pnin:

As a teacher, Pnin was far from being able to compete with those stupendous Russian ladies scattered all over academic America, who, without having had any formal training at all, manage something by dint of intuition, loquacity, and a kind of maternal bounce, to infuse a magic knowledge of their difficult and beautiful tongue into a group of innocent-eyed students in an atmosphere of Mother Volga songs, red caviar, and tea; nor did Pnin, as a teacher, ever presume to approach the lofty halls of modern scientific linguistics, that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabulous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects— Basic Basque and so forth— spoken only by certain elaborate machines.

Now that’s a sentence!


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

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.


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

“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

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

Continue reading “Walker Evans, Pt. 10”

Aixo era y no era

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.