Category Archives: quote

on finishing, only to begin again

The whole month of May I’ve been reading Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature in chunks, interspersed among a dozen or so other books similarly picked up and put down, and today I got to the end and thought that the right thing to do would be to start again. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s what I’m intending to do for the next month or so. Again and again I encountered passages that seemed to speak directly to me and my persistent questions and wonderments. Sometimes I copied them out, more often I vowed to return later. Thus:

The underlying belief shared by the Oulipo and the legion of Ou-X-Pos, serious and non-, is essentially that any enterprise or discipline can be treated as solid and particulate, as an experiment we can tweak and tinker with until we get results that interest or comfort or provoke or unsettle us… (pg 275)

I discovered the Oulipo with an overwhelming sense of relief, welcomed the idea that literary language, instead of anything and everything else around me, could be the surface onto which I projected my obsessive-compulsive mental fidgetings. If I had been someone else, it might have been painting or history, puppetry or pornography, some other X to solve for; if I’d been lucky, it would have been one that already had an ouvroir on the case. As it turned out, I was lucky—not to find what I didn’t know I was looking for, exactly, but to find the questions I didn’t know I was asking. (pg 304)

The key to the oulipian project, I think, lies in that inattention to disciplinary boundaries: the ability to take comfort in the certainty that every non-literary language act simply isn’t literary yet … The scary part, but the liberating part too, is that there’s no greater truth, or at least none worth invoking, that isn’t just as artificial as literature, just as mutable and self-justified and tautological as language. Science can explain the flood of light in a darkened room, but not why it matters, not why it feels like a miracle. Potential, in the Ou-X-Pian sense of the word, is just a way of chasing down and expressing that thing, whatever it is, that you’re sure makes the world make sense. (pg 317)

To live your life craftily, whether you read it as a labyrinth or a puzzle or simply a long combinatorial succession of evening and mornings, is to move through it with the purpose and the security that come from knowing you hold the tools to give it shape and meaning. (pg 318)

wordery

The first thing out of the gate in my RSS feed this morning was a pointer to www.thisworddoesnotexist.com/:

deuteroire
1. a legal document giving instructions concerning the legal rights and duties of a deceased person “he signed the first deuteroire for this subject”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

epimotor
1. relating to a mental process or the rate at which they develop from peripheral attachment to the cortex or nervous system “epimotor neuron activity”
2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

Link / New word / Write your own

Hm. I thought. The scrabble/clabbers player in the family will be amused.

And then I picked up the book that arrived yesterday, All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo: 1963 – 2018 (Ian Monk and Daniel Levin Becker) and found this in Jacques Duchateau’s “Lecture on the Oulipo at Cerisy-la-Salle, 1963“:

…if all literature contains artifice, since artifice can be mechanized, at least in theory, does this mean that literature in turn can be mechanized as well? Literature and machines has a bad ring to it, it even sounds, a priori, perfectly contradictory. Literature means liberty; machines are syonymous with determinism. But not all machines are the kind that dispense train tickets or mint lozenges. The essential characteristic of machines that interests us is not the quality of being determined but that of being organized. Organized means that a given piece of information will be processed, that all possibilities of this piece of information will be examined systematically in light of a model given by man or by another machine, a machine whose model can be furnished by still a third machine, one whose model etc. etc.

…In the OuLiPo, we have chosen to work with machines, which is to say we are prompted to ask ourselves questions about these notions of structure. This is not new. Writers have always used structures…. From a structuralist perspective, shall we say, all that is evident is suspect. Those forms that are relatively general, accepted by all, and modeled by experience can conceal infra-forms. A systematic re-questioning is necessary to uncover them. A re-questioning which will lead, beyond the discovery of subadjacent forms, to the invention of new ones… (pp 15, 16)

So 55+ years between those two, exactly the time in which my own sentience has been firing on all cylinders, which I might date from my first introduction to hands-on with computers and lexicon, via awareness of Phil Stone’s General Inquirer project (a used copy of General Inquirer: A Computer Approach to Content Analysis [1966] duly ordered…)

…which is of course part and parcel of my lifelong engagement with words and word play. One of the early examples that squirted out when I began to inquire of the Mind for instances:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, [for] to make an apple pie; and at the same time [coming down out of the woods] a great she-bear /coming up the street/, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she [buried him and] very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with little round button at /the/ top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

([my version] /not my version/)
(see here for the marvelous backstory)

which my brother John quoted to me when I was 5 or 6, and I took to mind… along with many other snatchets of verse and balladry, from John and from records in the family library. My engagement with Ogden Nash and Edith Sitwell and Tom Lehrer all spring from the same font of lexical foolishment, and Archy and Mehitabel and of course Pogo are other ur-text examples. More will doubtless surface as the day progresses.

Erdrich ftw

PortaChoix33

This morning’s online version of the New Yorker brought a short story by Louise Erdrich, The Stone, and the text of an interview of Erdrich by Deborah Treisman, from which this segment is harvested:

Sometimes I notice an odd, local type of stone and pick up a shard or a pebble… I’ve learned to put most of these stones back after looking. But stones ground me, quite literally, when I am in a new place. And they are mysterious and yet friendly inhabitants of my house. Every time I’ve moved, I’ve left behind a small pile of foreign stones in the garden. Have these stones used me to get from one place to the next? So I have a lot of stones around, I must admit, but this story isn’t based on a particular one among them. In the Ojibwe language, nouns are animate or inanimate; the word for stone, asin, is animate. One might think that stones have no actual power—after all, we throw them, build with them, pile them, crush them, slice them. But who is to say that the stones aren’t using us to assert themselves? To transform themselves? One day, the things we made out of stones may be all that’s left of our species. Of our complex history of chipping away at and arranging stones, what will be recorded or known?

The story itself is quite marvelous, and includes this resonant passage:

A stone is, in its own way, a living thing, not a biological being but one with a history far beyond our capacity to understand or even imagine. Basalt is a volcanic rock composed of augite and sometimes plagioclase and magnetite, which says nothing. The wave-worn piece of basalt that the woman [protagonist of the story] had slept with for more than a decade was thrown from a rift in the earth 1.1 billion years ago, which still says nothing. Before she broke it and dumped it at the bottom of a drawer, the stone had been broken time and again. It had been rolled smooth by water and the action of sand. Because of its strange shape, it had been picked up by several human beings in the course of the past ten thousand years. It had been buried with one until a tree had devoured the bones and pulled the stone back out of the ground. It had been kept by a woman who revered it as a household spirit and filled its eyes with sweetgrass. It had been shoved off a dock, lifted back up with a shovel, deposited in a heap. It had surfaced in a girl’s left hand. A stone is a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time. It is a living thing to some cultures and a dead thing to others. This one had been called nimishoomis, or “my grandfather,” and other names, too. The woman had not named the stone. She had thought that naming the stone would be an insult to its ineffable gravity.

My dealings with ineffable gravity are hereby declared entirely legitimate.

clarity


salt1x4

All the world is taken in through the eye,
to reach the soul,
where it becomes more,
representative of a realm deeper than appearances:
a realm ideal and sublime,
the deep stillness that is,
whose whole proclamation is
the silence and the lack of material instance
in which,
patiently and radiantly,
the universe exists.
(Mary Oliver, “Emerson”)

Goreyana

Two tasty bits from a Book of the Moment, Floating Worlds: the letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer:

yesterday I happened to notice in the mirror that while I have long since grown used to my beard becoming very grey indeed, I was not prepared to discover that my eyebrows are becoming noticeably shaggy. I feel the tomb is just around the corner. And there are all these books I haven’t read yet, even if I am simultaneously reading at least twenty… (pg 128)

I tell myself not to remember the past, not to hope or fear for the future, and not to think in the present, a comprehensive program that will undoubtedly have very little success. (pg 130)

The book brims with such gems.

and here’s a quasi-relevant image to accompany the above:


profile
The Flickr note for this one says “Part of the prep for a ghastly dental procedure, but I was amazed to see the profile of my father and both brothers. Ignore the vacuity in the NW quadrant of the image…”

What Kittens?


all what you do it come back to you
you got to bear the consequence

(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)

The Young Tuan B3

53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?

The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.

The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.

That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.

The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.

My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.


well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.

I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.


archy she says to me
yesterday
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens

The world of academic thought and action seems at any point in time to be mappable into distinct Disciplines, though the edges of any Discipline are ragged and permeable. But over time, in decades or generations, the boundaries shift and shimmer, and local heresies morph into schismatic reorganizations; intellectual fashions and leitmotifs come and go, and the focus of the Important peregrinates. I’ve been on the edges of a succession of disciplinary kerfuffles, almost entirely as a bemused observer.

In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.


but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove them

So I escaped the Wheel in the 1990s, into the aether of Library and Information Science, and enjoyed more than a decade of adventures completely outside of disciplinary argy-bargy, learning and building and following my nose. They paid me to know stuff and find out about more stuff and help others find what they were seeking. I had audience and agency, and an infinitude of things to explore. The 13+ years of retirement continues to present that infinitude, in which I revel. I sometimes miss the audience and the agency, though photography offers both.


these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too

But every so often I encounter some subject matter that reopens old files and nudges me toward trying to make better sense of one or another of problems left behind. It was palm oil this time, but who knows what next?


one day she was talking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject

Dos Passos on Veblen

I’ve been re-reading John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., last read in about 1966 when I found it in the Peace Corps book box. Its portrayal of the early decades of the 20th century seems curiously relevant to the horrors unfolding in the early decades of the 21st, and I’ve been tempted to transcribe various passages in the blog but heretofore haven’t felt the absolute necessity that struck when I read this paragraph in the third volume, describing Thorstein Veblen:

At Carleton College young Veblen was considered a brilliant unsound eccentric; nobody could understand why a boy of such attainments wouldn’t settle down to the business of the day, which was to buttress property and profits with anything usable in the débris of Christian ethics and eighteenthcentury economics that cluttered the minds of collegeprofessors, and to reinforce the sacred, already shaky edifice with the new strong girderwork of science Herbert Spencer was throwing up for the benefit of the bosses.

People complained they never knew whether Veblen was joking or serious.

of towel-snapping

Mark Liberman, over at Language Log, has a totally brilliant post: Towel-snapping semiotics: How the frontal lobe comes out through the mouth. He closes with this essential HL Mencken quote, perennially useful:

… more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly–the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances–is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows. [“On Being an American“, 1922]

I’m currently enjoying Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and this fits right in.