Thursday, April 17

spring and summer omens

springtime is upon us.

four years (or approximately fifteen hundred days) ago, I spent a bit of springtime in the UK. in about six dozen days, I get to go back. Manchester first, then Scotland.

leftover from that trip, I have eighty pounds--split into four lightly crinkled twenty-pound notes--tucked into a little pale blue notebook somewhere in my house. (other souvenirs include the recipe for tiffin and a nice grey skirt.)

I might spend that leftover eighty quid on concert tickets... or on plane tickets... perhaps theatre tickets...

who knows. I could spend it on chocolate instead.

seeing Great Britain in the summer will be new. I'll get to learn about postindustrial Scotland and see what kinds of things they eat and drink and wear and talk about in Dundee. I want to go climbing around highlands and countrysides and ruins. I'll write in many notebooks and try to remember to take photos with people in them. there will be plenty of walking and reflecting on where the year and the summer have taken me. I want to meet some Scots and come home with different hair.
but this is all still six dozen days away. I have papers to write and proposals to concoct and papers to grade before then. at least springtime is here to watch me do all those things. 

so for now, I'll be glad it's not too hot or humid yet. read outside. watch for daffodils. start leaving my socks and jackets and scarves in the closet. sit in the grass. start saving for sun screen and ice cream. plan some camping trips. take time to nod at butterflies. make a list of non-academic books to read on a swing in the park.
Scotland and summer aren't so far away. they and their adventures will wait.

Sunday, April 13

Saturday, April 12

visual visible visualized

have I mentioned this?

is it worth mentioning?

well at any rate it has now been mentioned. there it is: another little collection (reversely chronological, and filtered, and captioned) of Things I Decided to Photograph.

it is not the only one of its kind. there is also this one. and these.

photos are only one way we catalogue the world as we experience it. we come across things, we take notice, we document them, we point them out to others. we file away our notes, our memories, our bookmarks, our reflections or sketches or sloppy descriptions. sometimes we go back. sometimes the trail of our attention just keeps going, letting the previously-attended to fall deeper and deeper into the past.

this week I came across this kind of dramatic kickstarter page as I searched for interesting examples of promotional rhetoric to use in class. we didn't end up looking at it, but the ideas there, and the idea of Magritte's pipe-but-not-a-pipe, have been bumping up against other ideas, all rubbing off on each other in my head for the past few days. this universe of stimuli--so much of it visual and light up with sunshine... what is it really? what is it we think we're looking at? what if it isn't what we think it is?

a colleague of mine was in the newspaper a week or so ago, and when I passed him on the stairs recently I nearly took the chance to say, "hey I saw you in the newspaper the other day," but then the moment crawled out from under me, moving much faster than the two of us on the stairs walking in opposite directions, so I didn't, and as more and more stairs came between me and him, I immediately began thinking that really, it wasn't Kamal I saw in the newspaper. he was there walking up the stairs; it had been only photographs of him in the newspaper. only a bit of colored ink and carefully arranged shapes all combining to evoke this person's name, to represent a few things he said, to show us something of his likeness.

an online snippet exists, too. but beware--that is not a newspaper. this is not a photograph, even. what is it you're looking at? light and pixels, arranged on a screen. not quite a set of pages, despite all our cyber-metaphors.

and that isn't your colleague who knows five languages.

those things are not what they might look like or act like.
but is anything?

all these realizations, far from so spelled out at the time, followed me down the stairs and I kept wondering. I cannot say I saw Kamal in the newspaper, not literally.

a photograph is only a representation.

what people look like is not what people are.

what anything looks like is not what it is. existence is a lot of other things on top of a visual presence. seeing is a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it could never be enough by itself.

I can say I see Kamal in the hallways and elsewhere on campus every once in a while. it's easier to say that and swallow the literal-ness of the statement. I see plenty of people at the office, on the streets, in my classes.

what makes all those prepositional phrases more immediate than "in the newspaper"? "on facebook"? "on skype" or "in my email"?

a newspaper photograph can't quite walk up or down stairs or respond if you say "hey, how are you?" I realize. but are these really any less superficial--the visible images of humans that get transported into my brain by the light reflecting off their actual skin and hair and clothes--even if they can look right back at me and smile or nod or shake their heads? is that picture, the one my brain puts together, really any more complete or accurate or accessible than the one made of light from a screen or a printed photograph?

Sunday, April 6

Saturday, April 5

polished blades

people (probably not all people, but plenty of the people I hang out with these days) talk about their academic idols. the scholar they dream of meeting at this or that conference, whose every published word becomes a treasure, whose existence in the network of ivory towers gives them enough hope to keep inhaling and exhaling every long, long semester. most people have at least one of these names tucked in their pocket. as a pet academic talisman. a crush, even. even former professors of mine have them: role models who shine and resonate and pierce through the soggy, plodding pointlessness with something that seems worth caring about or worth working towards.

I never thought I really had one of those. of course dear Kelli from my undergrad days will forever be a precious mentor, but I haven't figured out yet if her published scholarship sets sparks off in my head. James Berlin and his earnest neo-Marxism was a brief fascination. there are plenty of writers whose style and bravery I envy, admire: Cynthia Haynes and what little I've tasted of Bakhtin, Derrida. Heidegger. beautiful sentences and admirable philosophies, yes. worthy of idolization? not so sure.

but this week, I may have discovered a just-right mix of sparks and fascination and loveliness and intrigue. his name is Richard Lanham.

I couldn't tell you my first meeting with this guy (he shows up in course readings every so often, and even here on the OWL), but I've had his The Economics of Attention on my reading list for at least a year. for my latest Classical Rhetoric paper I've found an excuse to carry the thing around with me and pick through it, enjoying his widely thrown net and all the wonderfully mixed things that are caught in it. I didn't stop there, either. he also wrote The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. and a bunch of articles on writing and technology and history and style. I am nuzzling my little nose into all of it. it hardly even makes sense to me how enchanted I find myself. how enchanting I find all the thoughts this scholar has thought.

in the first chapter of The Economics of Attention, Lanham takes us back to Homer's epics with portraits of both Achilles and Odysseus. Achilles is brash, but thoroughly truth-bound. he will never lie to you or wrap his opinions in euphemism or diplomacy. he will speak what is. he does not need to flatter you; if you don't see things his way, he can slice your skin to pieces. contrarily, Odysseus tells the stories he needs to tell, using whatever pretty words might work to move you. he might not be so honest, but would you rather be lied to, or earnestly sliced to pieces?

I was thinking about this set of opposites the other day after listening to Rick distinguish between the sophists and the philosophers. when you study these classic ancient Greek thinkers, speakers, writers, and teachers, you can pretty much divide them all into two somewhat fuzzy categories: the savvy storytellers like Odysseus, and the unyielding truth-lovers like Achilles. both sophists and philosophers have sophia--truth--in their names, but each has a slightly different take on her usefulness.

somewhere else, I think it was, Lanham calls these "the two great opposites of the Western cultural conversation." philosophy and rhetoric. the other day Rick explained to us that we needn't choose sides. both truth and flattery are great tools, depending on what you're trying to do with them. but of course using both means you are a sophist, he joked. only a version of Odysseus would admit the benefits of drawing on both. if you aren't above bending the truth a little, you've crossed some line the philosophers aren't able to cross. they won't let themselves.

and this reminded me of a game. games, I suppose. The Resistance. Avalon. no doubt there are many others. these two are adaptations of the classic Mafia or Werewolf. your innocent party of townsfolk has been infiltrated by evil-doers masquerading as good-guys. they are tearing your idyllic community to pieces from the inside out.

here again we have two teams. two great opposites. what I find interesting is how the loyal townsfolk, or plucky resistance fighters, or knights of the round table, have only one choice. as the game proceeds, they must behave according to their good-guy status. they cannot do otherwise. they don't want to. they wouldn't. they won't let themselves.

but the spies, the impostors, the wolves--they can do whatever they want. they have the freedom to lie or pretend or change their minds. underneath that, though, they are just as driven by the role the game assigns them. they can lie or pretend or change their minds, but only if it serves their ultimate destructive purpose.

is that scary, in a way? or could it be enlightening, freeing, in another?

whatever you want will somehow sketch boundaries around whatever you will, whatever you do. it depends on what we're trying to get done here. I think we probably want to avoid slicing each other to pieces. at least I hope so. in which case the flattery, a few bendable truths, and some pretty stories might be very important tools.

Sunday, March 30

infinite resolve

Thursday, March 27

the middle eight, after the chorus

the bulk of my music collection, I confessed to my passengers as we embarked toward the capitol of Indiana for various conference adventures last week, was obtained primarily from boys I knew in college. my tastes have evolved some since then (more Iron & Wine, less All American Rejects please), but my actual music collection has definitely not. the twenty-eight hundred music tracks I had back then are roughly the same twenty-eight hundred tracks I at some point between 2002 and 2006 swapped or ripped from all the boys in all the dorm rooms across the hall, upstairs, around the corner, or down the street. only 1582 of those songs, however, are worthy of being carried around in my pocket. only 1582 of them were with us that morning, on the little ipod I'd hooked up to my car's barely-functional tape deck. Songs, Shuffle = a potentially bottomless basket of nostalgic surprises.

as we drove, friend Patti and I tried brainstorming ideas for a vocal duet to perform at the English department fundraising show. should we choose something funny? something awe-inspiring? I tossed dozens of silly suggestions up and down in my head as we drove, sometimes riffing off the selections my little ipod dished up, sometimes spinning ideas out of nothing. this? or this? maybe this one? or something ambitiously a propos of nothing, like this?

none of those are exactly duets, though. could we make them duets, and would it be difficult, and would it be worth doing? and even then, how would we track down instrumental versions to use for accompaniment?

to Soundcloud for answers I went. I figured they'd have plenty of instrumental versions we might borrow, and they did. I also came across a ton of other stuff.

Soundcloud is a neat place for audio-exploring. remixes of a million shapes and colors abound. and while I think the concept of remix has very intriguing implications, its very musical provenance and history isn't something I have hitherto appreciated. neither sixties dance halls nor eighties recording studios have been places I turn for good music, though I don't quite know why not. those venues were not conveniently across the hall or around the corner, I guess. and furthermore, most dance music isn't really meant to be sung, and therefore it isn't generally my kind of music.

swimming in and around and among all the techno synth lyricless-ness I found whole channels, like this one, devoted to curating mixes and mashups.

I've embedded a couple that I found disorientingly recognizable. I've got both Weezer and Simon and Garfunkel songs in my own collection, but hearing them on top of each other is... odd. it's a surprise of a puzzling and delightful kind. it felt a little like when in your dreams, all the settings are utterly familiar, while also looking nothing like the places your waking self knows they should look like.

I wonder if that disorientation only hits if you've heard the original versions of the remixed/mashed-up songs before. after all, if you don't know how they are 'supposed to' go, the remix might sound normal. if you've only heard the cover, it could become the default, the truth, even if some other iteration came first.

colleague Tony is writing interesting-sounding things about music and rhetoric and creativity. the whole metaphor of remix is becoming so pervasive now, so repurposed (itself remixed?) it hardly makes sense to link the term so closely with only audio tapes and instrumental transitions. the idea is almost everywhere now.
the conference adventures (ATTW, CCCCs) pelted me with other people's ideas. the rest of my semester--or perhaps even life--might involve my brain finding ways to make mashups and crossovers with all that information and then some. 

in the meantime, Patti and I are going to don a pair of goggles and a pair of fingerless gloves, respectively, and remix bits of this.

Sunday, March 23

fair trade

Sunday, March 16

downcast

Thursday, March 13

scraps of life and truth and such

last week I was losing sleep over a ridiculous little essay about Plato's take on Socrates' take on a mysterious woman named Diotima's take on our deepest, most irrepressible human instincts and motives. that Plato buries his opinions three layers deep in this dialogue probably means something interesting, but I didn't focus on that. I took the words on their own and teased them apart into a giant fraying mess of ideology and metaphor. and then I tried to weave that mess into four thoughtful pages of inexact philological interpretation. maybe this isn't true for everyone else, but when my writerly self is losing sleep over such things, those things usually read like overly-obvious watered-down drivel.

I decided to title this four pages of watered-down drivel "A Supreme and Treacherous Pursuit: Creativity and the Endlessly Cyclical Quest for Immortality," which reads like what it is: a quite wordy and slightly pompous title. I like the contrast there hiding right in the space where Supreme and Treacherous seem to overlap a little. our many grand ideals, so lofty and pure-seeming--how often do they betray us, or turn out not to be so lofty after all?

whether I found whole premise of my essay hiding there in that overlap too, or whether I am only trying to cram my premise by merciless force into the space I thought maybe might be big enough, I am not sure. re-reading the essay now, one week later, lets me see, along with a few pesky typographical mistakes, that it might not be so greatly watered-down as it seemed at 2:29 a.m. the other night.

if you haven't ready any Plato lately, there's a handy translation of the Symposium here for you. the section I tore apart for this class, Diotima's second-hand ramblings on Love and Beauty, as reported to the gathered party by Socrates, come in about two-thirds down. what struck me about this section was its odd emphasis on creative (and procreative) processes.

immortality and endless copies... are those things the same? if we design the technology to make copies of ourselves and our things forever, will we have somehow unlocked the fountain of youth?

I don't quite ask those questions in the essay. I only had four pages. another bit I didn't end up having room for was this tangent into popular biology or genetics or whatever field it is. I wrote and scribbled and excised the following:
This deeply-rooted and almost irrepressible need for continued existence brings to mind Richard Dawkins' allegory of genes and memes. As human genes desire to perpetuate themselves via sexual reproduction, so ideas might be said to desire a similar avenue toward immortality. Dawkins famously introduces this concept in The Selfish Gene, saying,

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. […] When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” (192)
what would Plato think, seeing me compare him to this raving evolutionary biologist fellow? who knows? I think it works though, even if just barely. there's something in us that seems to be forever stretching to get out, to reach farther, to be more. maybe it comes from Plato's unchanging Form of Beauty or from the stardust in our DNA. I'm not Plato and I'm not an evolutionary biologist either. what do I know?

just for randomness, I'm throwing in a handful of excerpted and carefully un-contextualized sentences that actually did make it into my wordily titled conference paper. I can't decide if they sound better or worse or more or less watery without all the quotes from Plato and associated criticisms stitching them together.
Our desires, which spur us toward the good and beautiful, are themselves spurred by this yearning for an identity and influence beyond the limits of our own. 
To be mortal almost by definition involves ceaseless wanting. 
The desire for immortality prompts a unique and paradoxical creative journey: supreme in the sense that it leads us to ever greater and purer understanding, yet treacherous in its demands for never-ending, Sisyphean progress. 
Somewhere between strength and weakness, between good and bad, progress and learning take place. Desire and pursuit flourish in these middle spaces, spurred by elements on both sides. 
To begin, we must realize and appreciate the times when we are not so ignorant as to have no desire for wisdom, but neither so wise as to have no room for learning. We must remain somewhat stranded between mortality and eternity, in order to sustain the potential for unlimited growth. The processes of meaningful creativity involve recognizing both the inevitability as well as the irrelevance of limitations to this transformative work.
I sound like such a grad student.