Out of Joint

Out of Joint

*I wrote this essay in about two hours this afternoon to demonstrate how a descriptive essay could be built from around ten minutes of Internet research. Nothing fabulous, just an example for my students.

A car passing by woke me up. I heard the sound and opened my eyes to see headlights on the pavement from a worm’s eye view. I looked at my watch and saw it was three a.m. I tried to stand up. It wasn’t right.

Under normal circumstances, the heel bone, called the calcaneous, contacts the ground and flexes against the talus stretching the Achilles tendon. Calcaneous means heel in ancient Greek, and just above it rests the talus, a small bone in the center of the foot that acts like the center of a U-joint in the lowest part of the ankle. But talus is also used to refer to the pile of rocks at the base of a cliff. The second meaning seemed closer to me, as I collapsed again to the ground, unable to support my own weight.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” A bad television commercial from years ago came rushing back in my head. If it wasn’t so embarrassing, I might have laughed. I moved my ankle back and forth. It can’t be broken, I thought, I must have sprained it somehow. I couldn’t remember. The last thing I remembered was waking up on the ground. My ankle seemed oddly disconnected from my body. It was clearly the weak link in the process of standing up. I could move it though, so I was sure it wasn’t broken.

The Dutch anatomist Verheyden first named the “Achilles heel” when he dissected his own amputated leg. According to myth, Achilles’ mother tried to make him strong by dipping him in the river Styx. She immersed him completely, except for one of his heels— leaving him vulnerable to attack there. But that’s not the only version of the myth. According to Homer, the great hero was vulnerable because of his excessive pride. My pride welled up after I fell down. The pain seemed secondary to the thought of being found helpless on the pavement of the parking lot.

I contemplated crawling the hundred yards back to my apartment. As I laboriously tested the limits of my limbs, another car passed by. Every time my tibia, the large bone at the center of my leg, the drive shaft that moves the leg forward, contacted the pavement it began to pipe a song of pain. Appropriate, really, because the word tibia is actually taken from a word for flute. Six flutes were found in China, the same year of my collapse, dating from 7,000 to 9,000 years old made from the leg-bones of cranes. Something was wrong, and the song of my leg told me so. I was reduced to crawling like a worm. After managing to travel the scant four-feet to the end of my car, I was in a cold sweat. It could have been shock; I’m not sure. I passed out. When I woke up, I looked at my watch again. It was 3:15.

It was at least thirty feet to the other side of the parking lot. I wondered if I would be squashed like a can on the pavement if I passed out again before reaching the other side. It was a tough decision, but my pride wouldn’t accept any other choice. I had to use my arms because any attempt to touch my leg to the ground created pain so intense I could not stay conscious. But I made it, and passed out on the other side on the comfortable grass.

I repeated the performance several times, finally arriving at my apartment by 4:30 a.m. where I slept in my own bed. When I woke up several hours later, I realized I needed to call for help. At the hospital, I finally found out what was wrong.

The primary ankle joint is composed of three bones: the talus, the tibia, and the fibula. My fibula, the small thin bone that makes up the other side of the primary ankle joint had sprung apart. Both my tibia and fibula were fractured and occupying different zip codes, leaving the talus a useless stone above my heel. It took thirteen screws and a long titanium strip to bring them back together, including a screw an inch and a half long to convince my fibula to stay in place and form an intact ankle joint. The word fibula actually means pin or clasp, and like a sprung safety pin, mine just wasn’t doing the job without help. Because of this experience, I received a crash course in the anatomy of the ankle joint. The doctor, though helpful, refused to say when I could walk again.

Three months later when they took the massive screw out the joint stayed together. Gradually, I was able to walk. My Achilles tendon had shrunken to a hard-knotted mass, and it seemed to take forever to get it stretched back into place. Only after I began to walk did the doctor tell me that it wasn’t a given. Many people do not recover from this sort of injury. I suppose for me, it was a matter of pride.


A Matter of Style

Watching My Generation, a documentary which compares the 1969, 1994 and 1999 Woodstock concerts the narrow telescope of history lights up to roast the ants. The biggest victim, I think, is the view presented of the 1969 festival. Don’t get me wrong, the film is relatively fair in presenting the facts— such as the Who demanding their money, cash in advance, before they would take the stage— but the view of the 90s interviewees when looking back at the previous festival shows a media-driven response to the hype of what Woodstock was in 1969.

Moby, for example, expressed his feeling that the youth culture of the sixties had not yet been co-opted by big business and that the spirit of sixties youth, although naive, was somehow more coherent. Another young girl suggested that the sixties was unified by fighting the Vietnam War, and the present generation has no war to fight against. It seems to me that this has changed since the release of this movie, but I can’t see that contributing much coherence to the present age.

I was eleven years old when the first festival happened, but growing up in the 1970s the hype had already begun to snowball about the “summer of love” and all that. I thought it was nice how the filmmaker chose to display a pissed-off Pete Townsend smashing a guitar while the interviews spouted the peace and love thing. Interviews with the middle-aged attendees of course were quick to point out how much more violent and nihilistic the 90s generation was. Of course being somehow “smarter” and more aware of the futility of political action— that there wasn’t any point in caring because the 60s really changed nothing— made the younger generation somehow “better” than the kids in the sixties, at least if you listen to them.

Every speaker clearly serviced their own rhetorical need to feel above the excesses of the generation opposed to them. It’s all such utter crap. The situation at each of the festivals was unique. I suspect that the “peace and love” vibe sold by members of the crowd at all the festival’s incarnations was primarily marketing. As for the generational differences in attitude, I think old-timer Todd Rundgren put it best, loosely paraphrased:

In the sixties, the in style was to act like you cared. In the nineties, it’s more hip not to care.

I sincerely believe that there is probably very little quantitative difference in the involvement of either generation. It’s largely a matter of fashion, of style. The punk fashion (sold by the media, not manifest in reality) which emerged in the intervening years was one of apathy. A quick survey of most of the music which emerged in the whole DIY aesthetic would fill books with its involvement in resisting corporate culture, not through violent means, but by the creation of a new culture. The short-circuited hooligans of the last Woodstock are victims of not just one, but two media stereotypes— that the present generation is powerless against big business, and that punk is entirely about “fucking shit up.” It’s a pity, really.

To forge a culture, people come together. If there’s a Budweiser sign hanging in the corner, then it should be suspect. The lack of corporate sponsorship in the sixties does not make the people of the sixties any smarter— I suspect that if big business had been involved in the original festival, the vast majority of the attendees would have done much the same thing as the later shows. No generation has a monopoly on being young and stupid, and as for the apathy, well— most of the people I knew in the seventies who talked of the sixties counterculture didn’t talk about political action, peace, love, or any of that crap. Like any group of young people, they talked about partying and getting laid. It’s amazing how the lens of history can forge coherence that never really existed.


Walker Evans: A Gallery of Postcards

I got this curiosity recently— an aluminum box filled with a small number of postcards, made by Walker Evans as a promotion for the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. At the time, he shelved the idea but it was released in 2000 to amplify the sort of hysteria that surrounds Evans:

Like a poet refining an idea word by word, Evans often clarified and intensified the meanings of his pictures by trimming his prints just slightly to present the leanest possible image. With the postcards he took that impulse to another level. Evans was a master of the edge and one of the medium’s greatest precisionists. . . . The postcard prints are superb examples of this philosophy, framing as they do virtually new and often “better” pictures from the photographs that already attested to Evans’ meticulous eye.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The essay accompanying the box shows the usual idolatry without providing much in the way of useful information. It says nothing about the fact that Evans collected postcards and found signs and objects, so obviously making his own version of these artifacts was hardly a stretch. It fails to mention that he also frequently trimmed his negatives with scissors to make sure that they were printed correctly at the FSA, a practice that annoyed the archivists there. There is little of interest in the “edge” manipulation of the examples presented, and only a couple of the photographs present singular details— the scenes pictured are hardly fragmentary in any way, and entirely in step with his visual approach of copious tiny parts that present a coherent whole. Actually, they are nearly indistinguishable from any of his other work, regardless of the technique or size.

I suspect that the real value of these 3×5 artifacts is that they demonstrate conclusively a sort of fractal self-similarity with his entire body of work, neither amplifying nor detracting from it. They are just Evans postcards, no more clear or ambiguous than any of his work, neither “better” or less important— they merely demonstrate the coherence of his decision making.


Fitful Dreams

I had such a horrible time sleeping last night. I’m reasonably certain it was the book I was reading: The Matrix of Modernism by Sanford Schwartz. A person likes to feel that they know who their friends are. I’ve made such a career of demonizing Eliot and Pound— and now I find myself sympathetic. I’m so confused.

Russell Murphy, editor of the Yeats Eliot Review recommended it to me years ago. He knew how much I loved Yeats and detested Eliot. I suspect he also knew that this book would strike at my weak spot— philosophy. I’m starting to find things to admire about the well-thought out nature of Pound and Eliot’s philosophical take on representation, and this is hard for me. Even if I still don’t care for their poems, I can’t think of them as total assholes anymore. That sucks. I’ll need new straw men to beat up on.

The other thing that sucks is complicating my view of metaphor right before I need to lecture on it. Gestating in my head is a new way to look at Walker Evans and James Agee— it seems like Evans overlaps a great deal with Pound, philosophically, and Agee overlaps with Eliot in the strangest ways. They form an interesting matrix of representation, which hopefully I can try to write out sometime soon. The world doesn’t really need another treatise on Evans, but the paradoxical nature of Pound and the paradoxical nature of Evans fit too damn well. It warrants at least a mention. Eliot’s “objective correlative” also fits with Agee’s endless inventories of household objects, and tension over his own subjectivity. My head’s a mess just thinking about it.

I’m beginning to narrow the focus of my thesis to captioning practices in the photographic books of the 1930s. It’s a small piece of the larger puzzle which might be more easily completed in the next year. Simply stated, it has to do with how photographs work as units of meaning in the format of the book. Evan’s rejection of the caption has much to do with his ideas of how reality, and photographs should be read. Though other books before Let Us Now Praise Famous Men refrained from captioning, the reason why Evans was resistant to captioning was far different. Strange to find even greater depth and complexity to that choice in a book which explores the theories of Nietzsche, Bergson, Hulme, and William James compared to the poetics of Pound and Eliot, but whatever works I suppose.

I suppose I should get used to having my world view altered radically by books I read every few weeks, but I never do. It’s a shock to the system. Damn, the last thing I really wanted to do is start liking Eliot!

Soup Questions

Soup Questions

Something has been bothering me. At the first meeting of my class in Theory of Technical Communication, the introductions were a bit strange. Though I only knew about 20 percent of the class, there was an air of tacit assumption that everyone knew me, by reputation at least. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’d like to think it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure. My professors sometimes come up with new coinages as well— last semester a text (The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan) was called “Jeffian.” The adjective, the way I understand it, was meant to mean that the author latches onto a seemingly insignificant detail or mundane object and runs with it endlessly, through a loop of history and theory, and then back again.

Around halfway through the class, the instructor remarked:

“Nobody reads the manual of Microsoft Word for fun— regardless of what you might think— not even Jeff.”

It occurred to me that I’d never read a software manual, with the exception of Adobe PhotoShop, because most software is fairly intuitive. The point was simple though— people read manuals to extract information they need.

I’m not sure if the comment was a positive one— in reference to my tendency to read nearly anything— or a negative one— as in, Jeff is such a total geek that he reads manuals. But the more I think about it, the more I think my reading pattern fits with a typical technical manual user. I read to answer “soup questions.”

For anyone who may have forgotten Finding Forester, Sean Connery chastises Rob Brown for asking him if he goes outside: “That isn’t a soup question is it— it fails the basic criteria of a question in that it does not solicit information that is important to you.” I seldom read for pure entertainment value— I never have. I read because the text I’m considering contains something that I think will be useful to me— just like the person who reads tech manuals.

Regardless whether it’s the back of a cereal box, a novel, a poem, or a dense book of linguistic theory— I read to answer soup questions. I read to find out things that are important to me. I suspect I write for much the same reason— to find things out, not to entertain anyone else. Entertainment is a rather nice side effect of some of these questioning excursions; I’m not opposed to it, I just seldom have the time. I’ve got too many things that I want to know, too many things that are useful to me.


It’s just gravy (or not).

I was tired and hungry. As usual, there was nothing in the house.

A quick inventory of the refrigerator revealed some mushrooms in need of use. There were some potatoes on the top of the microwave. That’s it, I thought: mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy. That would work.

I started to sauté the mushrooms. Gravity increased. I really didn’t want to peel potatoes. I could just eat gravy.

Perhaps I’m just too linguistically bound. There’s just something not right about that. No one eats just gravy. Gravy implies a surfeit. A person has too many things— so the rest are just gravy.

It’s an addition, a side-dish, a garnish— not a meal.

My legs were nagging. I needed something simple, and the mushrooms were nearly browned.

Suddenly, in a flash of inspiration, my gravy became soup. Soup is okay— cream of mushroom soup, that’s it! A little pepper, some flour, some onion . . . Soup is the catch-all cleaning the refrigerator type meal.

It couldn’t be gravy!



*With apologies to J. Mascis

I was thinking about the Tom Robbins bit I used in class yesterday. I was thinking about Aristotle’s definition of definition.

For Aristotle, a definition was a proposition where the subject and predicate were completely interchangeable. Otherwise, the predicate is merely a property. Given Protagoras’ sophistic point of view, or the supposedly new postmodern one— definition is impossible. Examined under the light of speech-act theory, definition is similarly impossible. The act of speaking or writing is used to create an action— or at the very least, an effect. If an utterance isn’t novel— different in some degree from the state which proceeds it— there really isn’t a point to saying anything at all.

From the sophistic point of view humans are forever changing. Hence, an utterance that may be linguistically identical to another is perceived by a subject always becoming different hearing it the second time. We always become older, more experienced and bring a different context to bear upon extracting meaning. A rhetorical approach to definition is not to propose that an utterance is identical to another— but to control context as much as possible. Such control, from the postmodern point of view, is impossible— because repetition itself changes meaning.

While it may sound like I have my thumb up my ass here, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Tom Robbins shifts the definition of “thumb” by the definitions he offers of other body parts which the thumb is not. It is not a brain— the fragile center of thought. It is not a navel— the scarred center of being. It is an organ of mobility, of movement.

I was thinking about blogs. I was thinking about the frequency with which many early bloggers screamed “I am not my blog.” I was thinking about how so many people would like to define blogging as a popularity contest, or a public rather than private thing— a blog is not a navel. I was thinking how people would like to define the blogosphere as a platform for ethical development, of intelligent discourse and thought— but alas, I cannot think of blogs as brains either. Too many of them are absent of the criteria of deep reflection connected with that mass of goo.

I begin to think that the blog is a thumb. An appendage, stuck out with the hopes of getting a ride. Sometimes, you stand on the corner navel-gazing. Sometimes you reflect on something you’re thinking about. But a blog is neither a navel nor a brain. A blog is a thumb.

But of course, any definition such as this is impossible, because definition itself is impossible. A writer is left with only endless predicates of properties, spinning toward definitions that they hope will be accepted without too much thought on the subject.

** Blame Stavros for my hitchhiking on this particular bit.