Thursday, June 28, 2007

File this under: Coincidence?...

I think not.

This morning, I got an email from friend and colleague LJS that made reference to The Martyrology by bp Nichol. I opened the email to find this link to a site on Muppets, where I found out that apparently, bp Nichol wrote several episodes on one of my favorite TV shows growing up -- Fraggle Rock!.

I've mentioned bp Nichol in passing on the blog before, but for those who missed that installment (lackluster, really), Nichol was a Canadian poet. His poems tend to play with language and meaning, and in the Martyrologies, he tells the stories of Saints -- all of whose names derive from words beginning with "st". Thus storm becomes Saint Orm, and stand is canonized Saint And.

At any rate, I began reading Nichol because of David Clark's article in Monster Theory. The most intriguing questions raised by Clark's article concerned the way in which language becomes fragments in the fifth book of the martyrology, and how these pieces become monstrous, in a sense, because of the indeterminacy of the subject's status vis a vis the inherent threat of language in the poem. A particularly compelling quote: A large part of the Minotaur’s repulsiveness comes from its grossly indeterminate status, neither human nor inhuman, but both at once. What is so threateningly alien about one’s own poem that it can be thought of as similarly monstrous? What cruelty lurks at the heart of the labyrinth of language?

It's strange for me to find out, all these year after I watched a show about tiny 22-inch-high creatures who lived underground in a network of caves, that a poet whose work fascinates me so much was a writer for the series -- indeed, a writer who penned a number of episodes I'm almost completely certain I remember.

I'll end this post with an excerpt from the preface to the fifth book of Nichol's Martyrology, which takes the form of a letter -- a section of the text that haunts me still, both in thinking of the poem itself and in remembering Clark's brilliant commentary on it.

It was also weird to hear bits of The Martyrology that far back and I had a sudden image of your poetry capturing you like the Minotaur in the labyrinth - and started wondering what is the relationship of someone to the mythology they make up? Anyway.

Best, Matt.

Works cited in this post:

David L. Clark, “Monstrosity, Illegibility, Denegation: De Man, bp Nichol, and the Resistance to Postmodernism” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997)
bp Nichol, The Martyrology: Book 5 Coach House Books, 1999. (Web link: Coach House)


Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Future (of Communications) ain't what it used to be...

Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time, and for a brief moment, we have been among its many passengers.
(quotes transcribed from this youtube posting )

I’m one of those kids whose parents took them to Disney World. Not once. Not twice. Nearly every summer for the entirety of my life. My mom and dad, it seems, really bought into the idea that Disney World is a place where children and adults can laugh and learn and play together – words that should sound familiar, as I’m clipping them from Walt Disney’s opening day address at Disneyland. I think what was most interesting about my young life as a Disney World devotee was that I wasn’t quite the Princess-waiting-for-her-Prince type of girl the Magic Kingdom always catered to (but never more so than now, it seems). I wasn’t so much into the “Dreams” camp. It just didn't cater to what some might call my tomboy nature. What I really loved was Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – EPCOT Center. Yes, I was a science geek at Disney World.

What I loved about EPCOT was the promise of the future it seemed to portray. Dispensing with the character based rides of the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT center was a place to play but more importantly a place to learn. I learned about energy and non-renewable resources at the Universe of Energy long before it was home to Ellen’s Energy Adventure – and I wasn’t only in it for the all-too-short dinosaur portion of the ride, in which travelers through the Universe of Energy came face to face with those creatures whose deaths currently fuel our global energy economy. I learned about the formation of the Earth’s oceans and the endless variety of life that inhabits them at the Living Seas, long before it became “The Seas with Nemo and Friends”, back when the focus was still on the operations of SeaBase Alpha, and the care of the many aquatic inhabitants who live there, from sharks and rays to manatees. But what captured my imagination the most was Spaceship Earth – the attraction housed in the gigantic geosphere that is EPCOT Center’s trademark symbol.

On this visit to EPCOT Center, however, I felt conflicted about the possibilities for the future represented by this guided tour of the development of communications. For the first time, it didn’t ring true to me. Rather, the whole enterprise seemed profoundly sad. An excerpt from the end of Spaceship Earth pinpoints the moment where, dulcet tones of Jeremy Irons aside, I lost my faith in the narrator’s vision, for the first time in the 20 or so years I’ve been visiting EPCOT:
Today, we possess the ability to connect with one another instantly, anywhere on the planet. A new communications super network is being built before our eyes. Spaceship Earth glows with billions of interactions, carrying news and information at the very speed of light. But will these seemingly infinite communications become a flood of electronic babble, or will we use this power to usher in a new age of understanding and co-operation on this, our Spaceship Earth? Physical distance is no longer a barrier to communication: today the entire world is our next door neighbor. Our news is their news, their news ours. We share our hopes and concerns with the whole planet. We truly live in a global neighborhood.
For nearly 20 years now, Spaceship Earth has proclaimed this very message: Communications – and more broadly communication – is not simply a tool used to build our future. Rather, it’s the only real future we have, and our increasing technology entails both “the ability and the responsibility to build new bridges of acceptance and co-operation between us.” The outlook of this very Disney-fied vision of the future is interested in a causal relationship between human communications and human connections, averring that “by using our new communications tools to build better bridges between us, we will discover we all share the common bonds of hope and sorrow, dreams and joys.”

Put bluntly, I felt as though I’d been betrayed, experiencing this ride again at nearly 25. We live in a world of instant communication, and being “in touch” is, as I like to call it, the nervous tic of our society. And yet, it seems like the entire world is collapsing all around us – wars, terrorism, hunger, homelessness, natural disasters – everywhere I look are people and a planet in pain. The assuredness of a Disney ride – telling me since I was 5 years old that, as “Tomorrow’s Child” (the former theme song to the ride), I’d be part of a better future, a future in which humanity would finally have the tools to communicate with one another. In so doing, we would find a way to connect that would allow for both the acceptance of our differences (cultural, religious, linguistic) and the acknowledgement of the things that we share (and the order of those two is important).

In an unsurprising coincidence, Eileen Joy wrote a post on the same day I visited EPCOT, which addressed, among other things, the problem of modern communications and the human subject. I was particularly struck by her final lines, which speak to the problem of “electronic babble” from the excerpt above:
Just after listening to the On Point program I arrived home to find my new issue of Vanity Fair in my mailbox [the special Africa issue guest edited by Bono], in which issue there were excerpts from Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason, where, interestingly, he descries television as the main culprit in the so-called "death" or "decline" of authentic and reflective life and heralds the Internet as perhaps the last place where democracy might still be possible

So, all of this got me thinking and wondering: does too much blogging, life-logging, live-caming, and live-journaling really threaten the cultivation of the authentic and private self? Is "being alone" a necessary precondition for authentic self-actualization? Was it really more difficult in the premodern era to "hide" one's behavior, thoughts, and emotions? Why does a "private self" matter so much to what we think of as "being human"? Could the Internet really be the last safe haven of rational thought, strong critique, and freedom?
So which is it? Is the Internet electronic babble? or place where we might, finally, find a way to connect (...only connect)? Are we not getting enough “alone time”? or is it possible – just maybe – that we’re getting too much alone time? I don’t have any answers in this musing (do I ever?)...but I can’t stop wondering if our exteriorization of our interiority push us closer to babble and further from communication. I also wonder, partially as a result of my currently under-indulged obsession with Levinas, if part of the problem is that modern communications has been reduced to information without a face. Or more precisely: without a face we recognize as not simply (and so not dismissibly) Other – a face which, returning our gaze, sees in us, in what we think of as our collective self, an Other. It echoes something that was said or implied at Kalamazoo (I forget which) – the importance of allowing oneself – or one’s Self – to be displaced.

Update upon further reflection: maybe it also has to do with how we use the technology we have -- i.e., we have to choose to engage in conversation and bridge-building communication.

Partial thoughts, to be expanded upon later, with the introduction of another side of this story – translation. And, surprisingly enough, Augustine. Since I’m happy to announce – I’m done reading City of God, affectionately known in these quarters as the book that never ends...


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Non Campus Mentis

As a rule, I don't keep track of things my students write in papers that are silly or downright stupid mistakes. The reason: it would be far too easy to compile a book like Non Campus Mentis. Anders Henriksson has here compiled a group of student faux pas in history papers that rivals that of the great chain emails of yore. A sampling -- including my most favorite, on that "duelist" religion founded by (ironically enough!) Zorro:

"Zorroastrologism was founded by Zorro. This was a duelist religion."
"During the Dark Ages, it was mostly dark."
"Death rates exceeded one hundred percent in some towns." (on the Black Death)
"Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic Cathedral."

And of course, for those who think we're "after history" -- well, according to some, we are:

"History, a record of things left behind by past generations, started in 1815. Thus we should try to view historical times as the behind of the present. This gives incite into the anals of the past."

Of course, I'm being slightly facetious when I say that the reason I don't keep a list of funny errors because I'd want to write a book.

I'm actually more afraid of the book you could write just by compiling my collected high school papers.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ah Yes, Now I Remember

Blogging on the road from Orlando, Florida (yes, the Hurley Family Vacation 2007 was to Disney World, more on that later), I connected to the internet, and saw on my bloglines this lovely post at University Diaries. I spent Bloomsday 2007 in perhaps the most anti-Joycean way possible, but reading this made me long for my bookcase in New York, and my well-worn copy of the book that captured my imagination at the age of 17, and gave the first (albeit short-lived) direction to my hopes for an academic career:

... The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many-coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

Yes, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (quotation courtesy of University Diaries, as I'm too lazy to look it up myself). Maybe it's a bit cliche, but at 17, Joyce spoke to me in a way nothing else ever had, not even medieval literature. It's nice to remember, at a point in my career where I've chosen the critical over the creative, a moment when that choice hadn't been made yet, when I first thrilled at the possibility of language, molded and shaped into art. Not to suggest I've lost that intoxication with the power of words. I only write about poetry now -- but re-reading these lines from Joyce make me realize why so many of the colleagues who I am most grateful to have as interlocutors are poets and creative writers, professionally or not. It's a constant reminder that poetry isn't something only in the past -- it's something being continually reborn, like in cummings' Introduction to New Poems (something I really should blog about sometime) --
a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being
. And yet so much more than mere remembrance.

More upon my return to North Carolina, including some thoughts about visions of the future inspired by a return visit to EPCOT Center (a bit dark, I'm afraid, though the current post over at In the Middle by Eileen Joy has me rethinking a bit of what I'd initially thought...), and thoughts on finally being done with all the Augustine I'm reading before September.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning...

particularly when the part of Carolina one is visiting happens to be Asheville. I'm off to Mount Pisgah for a hike tomorrow up off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I'm not entirely certain of it, but I think Augustine may be sweeter when read in the mountains of my home state. I suppose we'll find out, eh?

After this trip (which I'm taking with a friend who also happens to be a medievalist -- medievalists on mountains...this could be interesting), I'm heading to Florida on Wednesday, and won't return until the following Monday. I should be tan, finished with everything I ever plan to read about Augustine, and back to blogging when I get back.

However, a snippet from my orals reading that I thought was particularly interesting. It's from City of God, Book XI, Chapter 14. What caught my eye about this is that it bears interesting relation to Bakhtin's concept of the dialogism of the "living word" -- in fact, capitalize that "w" and it would be downright eerie. But the idea that every utterance is spoken in response to a future utterance not yet articulated (that was rough, but will do for now) definitely seems present in this section of Augustine's text, albeit more than a thousand years before Bakhtin wrote. Now that's dialogue for you. I'm still trying to work this out -- but it's certainly a bit I'll be pondering more in the next few days, and I offer it up for you, gentle blog readers, for your pondering as well.

As if in answer to a question from us, the Lord added an indication of the reason why the Devil did not 'hold fast to the truth.' He says, 'because there is no truth in him.' Now there would be truth in him, if he had stood fast to it. But the expression in unusual in form. It says, on the surface, 'He did not hold fast to the truth, because there is not truth in him.' Which seems to be saying that the absences of truth in him was the cause of his failure to stand fast, whereas the fact is that his failure to stand fast is the cause of the absence of truth. We find the same way of speaking in one of the psalms, 'I cried out because you, Lord, have listened to me'; where it seems that the psalmist should have said, 'You have listened to me, Lord, because I cried out.' In saying 'I cried out' he appears to be answering the question, 'Why did you cry out?' But, in fact, the verse shows the affecting character of his cry by its effect in winning the attention of God. It is tantamount to saying, 'I prove that I cried out by the fact that you listened to me.'

And now, on to vacation. See you all on the other side.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

the Knowledge of Monkeys Higher Primates HUMANS

Well, I've finally settled into a viable summer routine. I use my mornings (about 8 AM until noon) to work on the Allen Mandelbaum collection. I then grab a quick lunch, take a walk outside to remind myself there's still sunshine and sky, and then settle into my favorite place on the sixth floor of ZSR library at my alma mater, Wake Forest, and I read. Finished De Trinitate today. Shall begin City of God tomorrow. I spend the last half hour of my day outside reading, if it's nice, waiting for my ride home (ah, the joys of carpooling with my mom -- she knows as much about Augustine as I do this week, given that I'm so desperate for human contact at the end of the day I tend to babble on and on about temporality for the entire twenty minute drive home. She's a very patient woman). I come home, have dinner, go for a run, and then zone out in front of the TV with my sisters and my adorable Italian Greyhound puppy (who's twelve, but never mind). Somehow, in the midst of all this, I rarely find time to catch up on emails. But I'm working on getting email time in there somehow.

But over all, it's good to be home.

However, to make my morning of sorting go a little faster, I've taken to listening to NPR podcasts (with the BBC world service mixed in) to help me engage intellectually when Dr. Mandelbaum's papers get repetitive. This morning, I listened to Fresh Air, and there was a very interesting commentary on Wikipedia by Geoff Nunberg that has to do with the viability of "human knowledge." I spent the last ten minutes typing this up -- you can download the podcast on the Fresh Air website , and it's in the last ten minutes. I hope that NPR won't mind my reproducing these here. So, Nunberg's closing remarks:

The most exasperating thing about all these arguments about Wikipedia is that everybody seems to assume it’s a single entity, the way an encyclopedia is. The Wikipedians explain how this open collaborative process is lurching toward a neutral and methodical synthesis of all human knowledge. The critics charge that it is undermining the conceptions of expertise and intellectual order that the encyclopedia has embodied since the Enlightenment. But in one form or another, that picture of human knowledge was always a grand illusion, even back when we could believe in the unity of high culture. By now the Encyclopedia and the Dictionary are really just symbols that we honor with inattentive piety. Actually, it’s my guess that most of the people who “harumph” about how Wikipedia is nothing like an encyclopedia haven’t actually opened one for some time. But then, Wikipedia is steeped in exactly the same bookish nostalgia. That’s implicit in the name Wikipedia itself, and in the ferociously Oedipal rivalry the Wikipedians feel with the Britannica. And it explains the exaggerated deference that Wikipedians pay to published sources, even though a lot of the books and articles that contributors cite turn out to be no more reliable than Wikipedia itself. The irony is that Wikipedia really signals the end of the Encyclopedic Vision. It’s only when you actively try to implement that view of collective knowledge that you realize how fond and delusional it is. You deposit this multitude of strangers in a single place, you shouldn’t be surprised when you come back and find nothing but a jumble of footprints in the mud. That’s actually a fair picture of what human knowledge has always been. But it was never so evident before now.

So I guess the answer's in -- infinite monkeys + infinite time + infinite typewriters will never = Shakespeare. But with all that said -- I have to wonder still. We're not developing a perfect system of knowledge, and we know that there's no such thing as a coherent, unbiased collection of all things that are "known." But I can't help but ask -- isn't there also some inherent value to the variations of those footprints? Could that be the most human knowledge of all?


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Last of the Time Lords

I've been watching the new Doctor Who series on the BBC for about six months now -- ever since it quite randomly came on the television after some other show I'd been watching with a few British friends. I was assured that I would "love it" -- and love it I have, as I've been following it a bit obsessively ever since.

For those who don't know the show, a BBC website can provide some background if you're interested. All you really need to know is that the series revolves around a character called, simply, the Doctor. He is the last of a race known as the Time Lords, and the series follows his adventures traveling through space-time in the TARDIS (which if memory serves stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which is a space-timeship disguised as a police call box. He has various companions over the years, including a young girl named Rose in the first two seasons of the most recent series, and a young doctor named Martha in the most recent season. The show has enjoyed a pretty much unparalleled longevity, thanks to the fact that the Doctor's race, the Time Lords, don't die -- they just change form. Same doctor, different face. Thus, the slightly nerdy looking yet oddly compelling David Tennant now plays the doctor, where formerly Christopher Eccleston played our space-time traveling hero.

In the most recent episode, called "The Family of Blood", the Doctor is given a chance to become human -- in fact, he must become human to hide from alien creatures looking to hunt him down in order to absorb his immortality. He is given the chance to have, for a brief period of time, the one thing he can never have -- a life in which he can truly take part, a life in which he is a part of the chronological procession of time rather than an outsider who can zap in and out of it at any given time. Because he is the last of his kind, and because no other race shared their peculiar affinity for time travel, and more importantly, the safe-guarding of time -- he finds himself utterly alone.

Over at In the Middle a week or so ago, we were having a discussion about immortality -- trying to answer or at least begin to answer the question Eileen Joy phrased thusly: "if you could live forever, would you want to? Would you still be human?"

I felt resistant to the question at the time -- too many episodes of Highlander, too much reading of the Lord of the Rings -- I'm still not entirely sure what it was, but there was something about the question that meant, for me at least, that the answer would probably be no -- but I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was at the time.

It doesn't do justice to the conversation there to add an episode of Doctor Who to it. Perhaps, like so many other literary (or televisionary?) answers to this question, it doesn't really "count" if you will -- it's only humans, thinking about what would be wrong with the thing they want most (immortality) if it were, in fact, within their grasp -- a way of comforting ourselves in the face of the one thing in life that is certain. But if you look here, and go to about 8:10, you'll see, in classic Doctor Who style, the answer that springs to mind for me. The line:

In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of losing everyone that matters to you. Tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you'll end up alone.
Maybe we're just hardwired genetically to reject our mortality, to strive to live beyond it no matter the cost -- but there's another side to that struggle that seems to recognize that, were it different, we would -- whether in one thousand years or one billion -- get tired.

In a way, it's similar to The Wanderer. The part I'm thinking of is near the end -- it's the ubi sunt passage that we so often return to as a lament over the transience of earthly things:
Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

When a wise man beholds these walls,
and contemplates deeply the darkness of life,
he grows wise in spirit. He will often bear in mind,
many of death’s slaughters, and will speak these words:
Where is the horse? Where the warrior? Where the lord?
Where are the banquet-seats? Where are hall’s joys?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the warrior!
Alas for the glory of the people! How distant is that time,
vanished under night’s shade, as if it never were!

(Thank you to Labyrinth Library for the OE text. The translation is my own.)

Of course, one could always read this as related to the idea that if humans were immortal, then there would be no reason for such lament -- there would be happiness. But I suppose a part of me -- the pessimistic part of me, to be certain, but a part of me none the less -- thinks that mere immortality wouldn't be enough to light up the "darkness of life." I guess there could be no guarantee that I wouldn't lose something -- or someone -- that I loved. Rilke, in his Ninth Duino Elegy, says something to this effect speaking of objects:
"And these things, whose lives are lived in leaving -- they understand when you praise them. Perishing, they turn to us, the most perishable, for help. They want us to change them completely, in our invisible hearts, oh -- forever! -- into us! Whoever we may finally be."
Of course, Rilke imagines for himself a kind of dynamic between humanity and objects that focuses on what humans can do for "things" -- but I think there's a way to save Rilke from his human-centered vision.

I think there's space in Rilke's poem for a kind of respect that his language elides. In a sense, by respecting what they are (whether human or not, "sentient" or not) and not merely their use to humans -- there's a chance to save ourselves. Again, what I'm going for here is slightly more nuanced than I know how to put into words just yet. It has to do with boundaries, with respect, with limitations. I has to do with knowing when our desires would take too much from things and beings around us -- and with knowing when we must, in fact, allow our own ending to be altered in order to avoid damage to the world and universe in which we live.

In short -- nothing comes without a price (not in a moralistic way, just in a logical way -- energy can't be created or destroyed. Only the form changes, and that form, when it changes, must have been something else before...), and immortality seems like it would draw too much on an already overdrawn environment. Perhaps one day there would be a chance for altering our own ability to live on without the loss and damage that immortality might cause. But until those contingencies are fully mapped out, I think I'm with the Doctor. The "things" (people, animals, plants, worlds) we'd leave behind in our own attempts to be mortal seem too valuable -- and I don't know that I would ever want to be one of those left, asking where it all has gone.

Edit, Monday afternoon -- funny how I managed to leave the "im" off of "immortal" in that last paragraph. I wonder what it might mean to leave things behind in an attempt to "be mortal" rather than an attempt to "be immortal". Typos, while annoying, can also be thought provoking on occasion...