Voice never made me mad.

But it can be a maddening concept, especially for an artist. It sounds like so much new age hokum to say “you must find your own voice.” Maybe lemon and honey will help? I don’t think so. The term is used to denote a form of self, a self that we express. The trouble with the concept is that it implies that each artist has just one proper “voice.” Writers use the term in the same way, but they don’t really take it so seriously as visual artists. Writers work with multiple voices that can be generated once you find a “center” to work from.

When I think about it, this makes the model of self that Dr. Anderson proposed on Monday really fit well. While postmodernist theory tends to suggest that there is no self, only interaction with others, Dr. Anderson suggested that there may not be a self, but rather multiple selves. It seems interesting to lay these out in terms of a molecular model. There is a core of genetic predisposition, perhaps, which accounts for a particle in the nucleus. Somehow, experientially, we develop other particles that do not change much over time. However, revolving around this mass there are hundreds of other selves that rotate and interact dependant on situation that modify and develop over time.

Dr. Anderson’s proposal was tied to a model of what happens after trauma. He suggested that traumatic experience causes a collapse of all these multiple selves into one self— a self that bases all its concepts in relation to trauma. The healing process then is a return to multiple selves, an expansion back to the larger discursive space that non-traumatized individuals inhabit.

In an oddly related tangent, I was thinking about how photography works. I was a chemistry and biology kind of guy before I became an artist type. I knew, going into my first photography class, that a photon entering certain silver halide compounds would cause a disruption in the orbital path and form a latent image. Then, subsequent chemical reactions could be used to isolate and reveal these disruptions. That’s one perspective that a chemistry teacher (who also taught photography) shared with me.

But when I took the class, it was taught by a former English teacher. The first day, when he slid the paper in the tray and an image would start to appear, students all around squealed in delight and asked “how does it do that?” The teacher just smiled and said:

“It’s magic!”

I liked his explanation better.

Being a more pragmatic person these days, I was thinking about the difference between these two explanations. Let’s see, in the first explanation, a hypothetical particle (I’ve never seen a photon, have you?) impacts with other hypothetical particles and they change orbit. The tricky thing is, it isn’t necessarily a particle. Sometimes it acts like a wave. Sometimes it seems more like a packet of energy. There exists reasoned proof that we cannot really know what it is— because the act of constructing an experiment to figure it out dictates the result. Uh, photons sound like magic to me. Something outside our understanding, or the possibility of our understanding if you listen to some. I still like the English teacher’s explanation better. It’s shorter and cuts to the heart of things without the complexity. It is a valid explanation. However, to make better films and papers, delving deeply towards the limit of what we can know is the best strategy. Magic doesn’t seem to make better films or papers. But magic makes better pictures.

Burden of power

The burden of power

I was watching White Man’s Burden this afternoon, and though it’s an appallingly shallow film, it reminded me of some issues that have come up in teaching. My classes are about 50% black, and it hasn’t been a problem for me. As the final core course in writing, all the writers I’m dealing with are of a fairly high level, and if I had to make a value judgment about it, I’d say that the black writers are all on the high side of normal when it comes to skills. The university is probably about 25% black on the average, so it was odd to hear from some of the other new teachers that their classes were nearly 70% black. Writing is writing, as far as I’m concerned, though I must confess that the percentages made it clear to me that when selecting essays I needed to make sure that there was a healthy assortment of black writers present. It’s not a matter of setting quotas, but more a matter of making sure that something “connects” with the students in my classes.

I have a fairly broad background in literature so it’s not a difficult task to think of good pieces to use, though I must admit that I fight the temptation to include 18th and 19th century stuff because I’m afraid they just won’t get it. I did use Phyllis Wheatley (the first published African-American poet) in class last week though, because she is just too good to be missed. Another teacher chose Maya Angelou. After reading one of her pieces, she said that a burly white student announced:

“That SUCKED!”

She actually felt fear for his safety in the predominantly black classroom. The teacher in question is a very small young white girl, but outspoken. She immediately interrogated his appraisal:

“Could it be that you think that because you’re a rich white boy from Sylvan Hills?”

Sylvan Hills is a privileged white neighborhood filled with private schools, and luckily the guy had a sense of humor, and just said “I guess so.” Many of my black students come from private schools, and it’s just weird to see the dynamics of a large urban University at work. The spread of experiences that comes across in the essays I’ve heard so far is just staggering. A person needs a shotgun approach to reach them all.

There’s just a shock of immersion that all these first year students are dealing with. It’s a different universe, where there is no real power or privilege dynamic other than the usual teacher/student one.

The swap of power dynamics in White Man’s Burden reminded me of the oddity of having more upper class black and lower class whites in my classes, and there is just no such thing as “typical” as far as I can see in the makeup of our classes. I’ve always been a bit of a generalist, and so far that has been a big advantage in trying to hold things together and connect with people. But this also has made me notice a rather scary thing when searching for web resources.

Women writers are well represented on the web. Lots of stuff to choose from, much of it arcane but still, lots of useful stuff. But in looking for some favorite African-American writers, I can’t find anything by Eldridge Cleaver, little from James Baldwin, and most of Martin Luther King’s catalogue is also noticeably absent. I’m sure that when I dig a little deeper I will be able to find some Henry Louis Gates, but even the sites that focus on African-American lit are just shallow puddles compared to the wealth available in other areas. Maybe it’s copyright issues, but this just doesn’t seem right. There is just too much good stuff out there to keep it under lock and key. It bugs me.


Cat in the corner pocket

There’s always a story.

A kitten was wandering around the parking lot of the bar. One of the bouncers, a big soft-hearted fellow decided to rescue it. The promoter, a cat hater, decided he wanted to play pool and knock the cat into the corner pocket. But the bouncer was larger beast, and didn’t let that happen— the kitten chose the corner pocket on its own. He wasn’t put there by a person with hatred for shy and retiring beasts, because that promoter respected the larger beast. Bouncers are assertive beasts who usually get their way.

So are presidents. I made the mistake of watching part of his state of the union address. It was like seeing Joe McCarthy’s ghost. “And in her prayers, she said ‘Semper Fi’” Uh oh, I smell a master narrative. And the poor little boy sent his football to heaven . . . I got angry and then I got nauseous. Missiles will save us, yes, that’s it. We’ve got to spend more money on high tech weapons, to fight those who might go down to the corners store and buy some fertilizer and force their opinions on us explosively. Yes, we must root out the filthy communists, er, I mean terrorists, from every corner of the globe. They’re everywhere. Maybe there’s one sitting next to you right now . . .

The question is always there as to which story to believe. Who believes the triumphant Johnny comes marching home bit? But it’s always a persuasive story. It isn’t that we believe it, really, I think, it’s just that we want to believe it so badly. The promoter really didn’t offer to knock the kitten in the side pocket. If I remember correctly, he wanted to take it skeet shooting and use it for a target. But that was a joke, and everyone knew it. Too bad we can’t figure out that the “war is good” narrative is bullshit too.

Good Reasons

Good reasons

Woke up this morning to read a great article, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument” by Walter Fisher. It opens with a quote from Kenneth Burke:

The corrective of the scientific rationalization would seem necessarily to be a rationale of art— not, however, a performer’s art, not a specialist’s art for some to produce and many to observe, but an art in its widest aspects, an art of living.

I don’t care for Burke much, but in looking at this fragment I see a fundamental premise at work. The corrective for one rationale is another rationale? This is a side-step, an evasion of more fundamental oppositions, which are dealt with by Fisher. It made me think of the 18th century method of dealing with the emotions— to rationalize and apply logic to them— which was totally overthrown in the revolt of Romanticism. The comparison of reason vs. the emotions, or rationality vs. magic, or any other convenient lumping strategy may be just a diversion from other core issues. In order to make Burke’s stratagem effective, a redefinition of what constitutes reason is in order, which is exactly what Fisher suggests.

The core assumptions of the article are easy for me to accept. Fisher asserts:

“Humans as rhetorical beings are as much valuing as they are reasoning animals.”

A quick check of web behaviors confirms this pretty clearly. Hot or not? We question value more often than we apply logic, it seems to me. Reason is a factor, but not the central issue in most of our decision making behaviors. But still we call them reasoned choices, or as Fisher labels it, we employ “good reasons” for making decisions. Fisher defines good reasons as “those elements that provide warrants for accepting or adhering to the advice fostered by any form of communication that can be considered rhetorical.” He groups this with a fairly common definition of rhetoric: rhetoric is practical reasoning. Note that in dealing with practical reason, Kant also admitted the potential influence of transcendent concepts, magic if you will, on this practical reason— because, as I have often observed, there is just no accounting for taste.

Fisher’s usage of paradigm must be clarified. While I think it works well in the linguistic sense (a set of available elements), he defines it more broadly as “a representation designed to formalize the structure of a component of experience and to direct understanding and inquiry into the nature and functions of that experience.” The structure of the classical world is represented as the Rational World Paradigm:

  1. Humans are essentially rational beings
  2. The mode of decision making is argument— clear-cut inferential structures.
  3. The conduct of argument is ruled by situation— legal, scientific, legislative, etc.
  4. Rationality is determined by knowledge and skill.
  5. The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved by the appropriate analysis, argument, and reason.

The postmodern crisis (note the similarity of this word with its root krisis or argument) is rooted in the failure of these constructs. It doesn’t take much to disassemble them. People don’t make decisions based entirely on this form of rationality. The limits of knowledge are constantly under question.

Rather than adopting Burke’s construct of man as a symbol making creature, Fisher proposes the metaphor of homo narrans, man the storyteller. The narrative paradigm alternative proposed by Fisher makes a lot of sense:

  1. Humans are essentially storytellers.
  2. The mode of decision making is “good reasons” which vary in form among situations.
  3. The production of “good reasons” is ruled by history, biography, culture and character.
  4. Rationality is determined by the nature of people as narrative beings.
  5. The world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation.

Classical rationality is subsumed in this, of course. We use clear-cut inferential structures in many situations, but not all. That’s the difference, really. We do understand that side of the process, but in reality, we know very little about how stories work and why we value them.

I do believe that this is a paradigm I can work with. It’s a wider view of humanity, and in my opinion a more truthful view. It also dovetails nicely with some theories of self that Dr. Anderson was working with last night. More to come on all this, I am sure.

Long day

The long day.

Monday is my 7am to 9pm day. But it was a good day. I love working with writers. I heard several essays with potential today, and I can’t wait to read the final drafts. I tried to convince everyone to take responsibility for their writing, to ask questions, and not accept “I like it” for an answer. They just don’t know how lucky they are, to have people who have to listen to what they have to say. Real life isn’t like that. That’s the great thing about school.

I really need to get going on my templates for Movable Type, that will cure the comments problem I suspect, but is bound to create others. Technology is a good thing, but so many of the people in my class are scared of it. I tried to convince them that using blogger is no more difficult than using a telephone or a microwave oven, and that’s the way they should think of it. So far, about half of both classes have started blogs. I think it’s a good thing.

But the real treat of the day was the long night class. Three hours of textual analysis for the most part, trying to draw distinctions between “healing narratives.” A bunch of good stuff, dealing with the levels of language and levels of displacement when people tell stories about traumatic events. I can’t discuss most of it here, because I have taken the “vow of secrecy” but I certainly will elaborate on the theoretical aspect of it as I dig in. Language is really a magical thing.

One of the oddities was the usage of the naming function of language, which had me constantly flashing back to Wordsworth’s poems on the naming of places. Another thing was a rather unique slant on the complex nature of the postmodern self. I really liked the introduction to a collection of essays called Healing Narratives edited by my teacher. He deals rather well with the problem posed by taking the “self” out of writing in the postmodern classroom. I’ve often remarked here that I don’t think we can be expected to be purely cogs in the Marxist discourse machine. I’m glad Dr. Anderson feels that way too.

I love taking apart writing to see what makes it tick. Especially when it isn’t my own.

I could weave a tragic narrative around the photograph I posted yesterday, but I won’t. For those who might wonder, yes, unless otherwise credited all the photographs on this site are mine. But it’s kind of the “other me,” the me that I’m still having problems dealing with. Once upon a time, I was a photographer instead of a writer. I’m hoping that one day in the future I will be both.


Sometimes I think the most powerful force in the universe is love.

Sometimes I think the most powerful force in the universe is loneliness.

Sometimes I think too much.

Sometimes I feel too much

I can’t honestly think of a time that I stopped thinking or feeling.

I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t thinking about love or loneliness.

Sometimes, I’d like to get out of the memory business.