Category Archives: rumination

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Almost the first thing I noticed this morning, as I stepped from the shower:


6iii2102

6iii2101


The lesson here is to try to always Be Observing the world around. And what, we may ask, are these pants people observing themselves, hanging as they do behind the bathroom door?

An update, two days later:

Friday:
7iii2102a

Saturday:
pants8iii21two

Convivial Question

Back in the day when I had classroom audiences, I’d tell them ahead of time what the “essay question” would be on the (still compulsory) exam, so that they could prepare something artful and interesting, and so that I wouldn’t have to read scores of bluebooks of blather. It sort of worked, because some took the opportunity to think about the question and actually tried to make a coherent response.

In crafting today’s Question for the Convivium, it’s been useful to me to explore how I find and explicate the idea. The starting place (Georges Perec in this case), the cross-connections, the contributions of others (Kate, in this instance, in response to my blog post), the influence of new input streams (reading the morning’s array of blog postings on my RSS feed), the writing down of passing thoughts for later consideration and integration… all very worthwhile to observe and recognize. Maria Popova’s relation of Ernst Haeckel’s tragedy and response is a glowing entrée to thinking about what Popova denominates elsewhere in today’s harvest as “…this intricate tessellation of being…”

Last night, Kate followed up the jigsaw puzzle line of thought with the observation that we are accustomed to the pieces of our lives fitting together, making patterns that we understand. But what’s now afoot for many is a disruption of the understood, the puzzle pieces unmoored and scattered, and many are now going nuts not being able to do the familiar, and with perspectives altered: twisted, fractured, adrift…

So what’s a constructive, healthy, satisfying response to such disorientation? For me I recognize that it’s finding something outside the inner selves (noting that, for some, the Inner is echoing, scary, empty, where the personal demons are), something that links with others. In my own case it’s turning out to be making stuff: the “word books” blogging project, the sending of links to various friends and relations, exploration and amelioration of various bits of long-standing disorganization.

What’s your response? Commence filling your bluebooks…

Georges Perec provokes

Seeking a Question for tomorrow night’s Convivium, and being these days much engaged with books and with the computer keyboard, I let Serendipity take its well-known course and picked up a book that I had bought some years ago and read perhaps a third of. Always meant to get back to it:

Georges Perec Life A User’s Manual (1978 in French; 2009 in English).

Says the Amazon blurb:

One of the great novels of the century… From the confessions of a racing cyclist to the plans of an avenging murderer, from a young ethnographer obsessed with a Sumatran tribe to the death of a trapeze artist, Life is stories connected by a single moment in time (8:00 p.m. on June 23, 1975) in an apartment block in the XVIIth arrondissement of Paris. Chapter by chapter, room by room, an extraordinary rich cast of characters is revealed in a series of tales that are bizarre, unlikely, moving, funny, or (sometimes) quite ordinary. The apartment block’s one hundred rooms are arranged in a magic square, and the book, too, contains a staggering range of literary puzzles and allusions, acrostics, problems of chess and logic, crosswords, and mathematical formula. All for the reader to solve.

So I opened it to the Preamble and found this:

To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object – we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle – is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each another and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe you know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you stated. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of the jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of . The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge…

Well. A delicious manifold of connections to elements of the life around me at present (word books, jigsaw puzzles, knotty this-and-that) . If you are familiar with Perec (1936-1982), it may be via his 300-page novel La disparition (1969), “a lipogram, written with natural sentence structure and correct grammar, but using only words that do not contain the letter ‘e’. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994). His novella Les revenentes (1972) is a complementary univocalic piece in which the letter ‘e’ is the only vowel used.” (Wikipedia). He was a member of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), q. absolutely v.

Idly flipping the pages of Life, I landed quite by accident (koff koff) here:

Each of Winckler’s puzzles was a new, unique, and irreplaceable adventure for Bartlebooth. Each time, when he broke the seal that locked Madame Hourcade’s black box and spread out on his tablecloth, under the shadowless light of his scialytic lamp, the seven hundred and fifty little pieces of wood that his watercolour had become, it seemed to him that all the experience he had accumulated over five or ten or fifteen years would be of no use, but this time, like every other time, he would have to deal with difficulties he could not even begin to guess at.

That led me on a delicious and delightful chase, largely via Google, to fill in the backstory: who is/was the puzzle maker Gaspard Winckler? Percival Bartlebooth? …and pieces from NY Times (Paul Auster’s “Bartlebooth Follies”), The Guardian, Review 31, and London Review of Books supplied all the knowledge I lacked…

I’m still working on what the Question is in all of this, or which of the many Questions I think would be most fruitful to pose to the Convivium.

Here’s a summary, levered somewhat fuzzily out of a Google Books result, for those who want desperately to know some of the answers to questions above:



a voice from the past

So there I was, walking to work in March 2005, on a hilly woods path behind W&L, and talking out loud with a microphone attached to a digital recorder. And 14 1/2 years later I find the file at Archive.org, where I had uploaded it shortly before I retired, in September 2005. The recording is rambling and only about 4 minutes long, but I’m quite interested in hearing what I had to say about courses, about teaching, about learning. I could only wish that I’d continued to make recordings like that.
Here it is:

From my walk to work

on vexed questions of Art

I’m reading Guy Tal’s More Than A Rock: Essays on art, creativity, photography, nature, and life and Richard Zakia’s Perception and Imaging: Photography – a way of seeing, in preparation for the workshop with Andy Ilachinski, and I’m currently embroiled with the vexed question of whether what I do with photography is art. On the one hand, it just doesn’t matter what the answer to that question is, since I’ll keep on doing it anyway, and don’t got to show no stinkin’ badge. But on the other hand, the answer might be NO, in that I don’t choose to wrap my doings in the garments of pretense, or engage in invidious comparison, by staking a claim as an Artist and seeking a public. I’ve been here before, with respect to my identity as a musician (I play mostly for myself, avoid performance, but take pleasure in being recognized as skilled), with many of the same insecurities.

Here’s a passage from Guy Tal that has me wondering if I could possibly live up to what he invokes:

Being an artist is about living passionately and deliberately, placing curiosity and awe and honesty and significance above social conventions, celebrity, and material spoils. It is not about finding interesting anecdotes, but about discovering them within, creating them anew, elevating and sharing and celebrating them in defiance of all that is corrupt and cynical and cruel and bigoted and shortsighted… (pg 37)

But if what I do is not art, what IS it? Most of my images have some narrative purpose, or seem to me to evoke stories of some sort; but generally the stories come from the images, or fit into some larger narrative project as exemplars (e.g., all those gravestones, or all those Abandoned Ancestors). Something prompts me to frame and click, and once I see the result in post-processing, a story may emerge that seems to explain something about the image. An example from the Acadia National Park adventure:


pursuit

Lichen on rock. Just an interesting pattern that fit happily within the field of view of a 100mm macro lens, no obvious expository insight in the viewfinder. But as soon as I saw it on the computer screen, the notion of Pursuit couldn’t be unseen: the figure on the left side, sharply defined by a line of white sketching its back, with an outstretched arm showing the direction of movement, is obviously being chased by the marvelously indistinct figure on the right, whose whitish feet (in the lower right corner) are clearly running… T’ang Dynasty, perhaps? Susurrus of silken robes? The art might be in the happenstance of lichen growth on granite substrate [not MY circus, not MY monkeys], or in the accident of my framing [definitely MY circus], or it might reside entirely in the post-hoc tale-making [positively MY monkeys]. It’s difficult to imagine that a print of the image, matted and framed and hung on a gallery wall, would have any salience for viewers without the interpretation.

And just why does any of this matter? It’s those daunting but fascinating books, along with a bunch of others in realms of photographic history and aesthetics, that pile up around my reading chair. They keep nudging me to explore further, but also remind me that I’m in search of my own vision. Sure, Stieglitz photographed clouds and made them into Equivalents, connecting them to his own mental states:

A symbolist aesthetic underlies these images, which became increasingly abstract equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. The theory of equivalence had been the subject of much discussion at Gallery 291 during the teens, and it was infused by Kandinsky’s ideas, especially the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive “vibrations of the soul.” In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas. (from The Phillips Collection)

Doesn’t mean I should or shouldn’t photograph clouds, does it? Or see/not see things in them that aren’t “pure abstraction.”

Entering a liminal state

Being just about to journey to Boston for a prostatectomy, it’s perhaps a good moment to reflect on what I’ve been up to lately, and maybe not so lately too. Here is some of the current thinkage.

I have zero personal history of hospitalization or, indeed, of anything but robust good health: no serious injuries, no experience of pain or physical inconvenience beyond the occasional back spasm, minimal contact with health care systems and their priests and acolytes. I don’t know what to expect from anesthesia or its aftermath: will I still be me? I’m not sure just what challenges I’ll encounter during “recovery” from the surgery, though one hopes for few and those readily overcome.

In the 11 1/2 years since retirement (back in September 2005) I’ve had a wonderful time doing pretty much as I pleased, reading omnivorously, walking, playing (mostly solitary) music, doing photography, sorting through and (selectively) resuming work on long-run enterprises, occasionally venturing to the shop for woodworking projects, traveling some, reconnecting with people and places of the past, and generally working on figuring out What It’s All About.

If there’s anything missing from this mostly-blameless recreation, it’s Audience. The best thing about being a teacher and a librarian was having a constant stream of people to talk with, to pass my discoveries along to, and to collaborate with in assorted constructions. Such interlocutors have been pretty thin on the ground during the last decade, except for occasional visits and visitors and my contacts via electronic media. Of course that’s mostly my doing (or not-doing) and reflects my ineptitude at developing new sodalities.

I do wish I’d been cleverer and more assiduous in using the Web as a medium for gathering and contextualizing and promulgating. My tendency has been to make a lot of pointers but then to skimp on explaining why anybody should thread their way through forests of scantily explicated hyperlinks. The 50th Reunion pages were an effort to entice my Harvard classmates into investigating the tangled webs of my doings, but I have little evidence that anyone was ever inviegled. Likewise the topical links at the head of this blog page (Brisées et bricolage, Quotations, Zotero, etc.), which display all sorts of fascinations but are mostly of interest and use to myself. I sometimes feel that I’m one of the few people still entranced by the blogosphere and following RSS feeds for a lot of blogs, an old dog who disdains new tricks (I’ve never been tempted to Facebook or Twitter, and NOW I know what it was that I was leery of). And maybe the world of the interwebs and hypertext aren’t really the universal solvents I imagined 20+ years ago, when the World was New. Maybe the medium of the codex book is still, or again, where it’s at.

The series of Blurb books I’ve produced since July 2015 has loosened a logjam of tangled projects and nudged me to think about legacy—about the meanings tied up in the stuff I’ve accumulated, and about what I might do to prepare for its eventual disposition. I’ve been a collector all my life, and harbor materials lovingly gathered across most of my sprawling interests. Each thing (book, LP, mp3, video, CD, DVD, instrument, photograph, downloaded image, electronic device, tool, scrap of realia, nubbin of memory, screed of text) fits somewhere into a (or is it THE?) personal saga, and so is an element in the grand Narrative that lives in my head. I suppose everybody has kindred arrays of stuff, and I could only wish that everybody gets as much pleasure from exploring their hoards as I do from spelunking through mine. It’s sobering to consider that the Indra’s Net [as Wikipedia summarizes: “a metaphor for the complex interconnected networks formed by relationships between objects in a system”] that organizes my mental world goes when I go, unless I somehow manage to build and promulgate distributable versions of what I’ve known, thought, imagined, accumulated. Not that there’s any market for such self-indulgent gallimaufries, but one doesn’t want to leave too much of a mess, and exculpatory discourse is at least a form of context-building.

Putting those Blurb books in one place (large files, so download to view):

  • Bluenose Physiognomy Nova Scotia Faces: an exploration of photographs from Nova Scotia junk stores (July 2015)
  • Beyond 7000 Ångströms More than our eyes can see: Six months of infrared exploration (January 2016)
  • Forebears: Exploring Franklin Blackmer’s family photo archive (March 2016)
  • Order Up!: My life and times at Home Kitchen Cafe (May 2016)
  • Who was Joe Wilner?: A forensic farrago (May 2016)
  • Remembered: A graveyard book (July 2016)
  • Tessellations: photographic palindromes (August 2016)
  • YMMV: Studies in occultation (September 2016)

Others are in the pipeline.

So we’ll see what emerges once I’m home again. I hope for a lot more photographic work and study, for new musical inspirations, for heaps of new books to read and episodes to watch, for many miles of roads and trails, and of course for culinary epiphanies.

Ten Years

The Blog is 10 years old today, and that calls for some sort of Celebration.

In fact my page-making/html-wrangling life goes back 20 years, and began with online guides intended for distribution to specific audiences, initially in the ‘Library Instruction’ mode. These gradually morphed into subject-defined weblets, and then into dated and accretive logfiles. The earliest logfiles I can still find are from March and April 1998, just about 16 years ago, by which time I’d established the habit of opening a new logfile whenever I began a line of inquiry that I thought would be likely to persist. Many of the hyperlinks I collected in those pages are now dead dead dead, but often it’s possible to see/recover the process of discovery I enjoyed as I searched and read. A few examples: Spring 1995 OED exploration, 1995 page on searches in Biology literature, my first University Scholars course (History of Technology, winter 1999), and a suite of pages for my Fall 2002 sabbatical. Many more can be found via the Web Legacy summary (compiled Spring 2005).

By 2003 I wanted to explore RSS-linked blogging, but couldn’t get W&L’s computing services interested in hosting the necessary software; I finally set up my own oook.info domain in March 2004, and instantiated OookBlog using MovableType software. I’ve used the blog to track day-to-day discoveries and ruminations, mostly as a sort of electronic journal, with myself as the primary reader. In 2013 I transferred the contents to WordPress, and augmented the overall presentation with links to other material at the top of the page.

This morning I decided that improving the tagging of posts would be a good step at Year 10, so I’ve spent today going through the posts to add tags. Along the way I’ve reacquainted myself with stuff I’d forgotten about, and begun to think about things I might do more systematically in the next 10 years. I wish I’d been more systematic about blogging my reading, and I’m not too pleased with the categories or the consistency of my tagging (argybargy and musics show up a lot, also quote and reading; metastuff is my own creation). I’m surprised at the number and diversity of music videos (and note that quite a few are no longer available). The daily capture of my Delicious feed ended in September 2011, but I’ve discovered that my Delicious tags DO still work! The Zotero link is the best I’ve been able to do as a replacement for Delicious.

A few nuggets I was especially pleased to rediscover: the tune Otiose Maggie; a nice grasshopper picture; my first experiment in podcasting: On Musical Variety (2004); elements of my Nova Scotia Faces project: the sad tale of Poor Alice G. and two nice videos; and a scattering of poetical bits: haiku/senryu written while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine in 2002, a farewell to Makeshift, two on patriotic excess, one on debts of gratitude, and a longer one on connections.

Bits of quotation are everywhere, but today’s Prize goes to Emerson

A man of 45 does not want to open new accounts of friendship. He has said Kitty kitty long enough.

In sum, I’m quite pleased with the breadth and the onward progress reflected in what I’ve found today. I continue to Believe In this medium, even if I’m speaking mostly to myself.

Word of the day

I’ve always kept an ear cocked for portentious words, those with more space on their insides than their exteriors might suggest. Sometimes they’re uncommon words, like mendacity or nugatory or tendentious… words that facilitate well-honed calumny, and (truth to tell) suggest that I am more literate than thou. Other words in the land of portent are more broadly familiar, but encode niceties of expression and fine distinctions of meaning, accessible to connoisseurs; Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, W.V. Quine’s Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary, and Collins and Glover’s Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War are three lexicons of this sort of verbal tesseractitude, each a catalog of explications rather than a collection of definitions. And of course there are portmanteau words and other idiosyncratic coinages, of which H. Dumpty famously said “I pays them extra and I makes them mean what I like”.

Today’s case-in-point has been tumbling in my consciousness all day today, gathering momentum as an explanation or enlargement of an issue that’s been on my mind: prestation is the word, and the issue at issue is my own long-running habit of (seemingly) giving away collations of information –texts, lists, sound files, images, books– on the slimmest of pretexts. “Informing others against their will” as my sigfile says, but what is it that lies behind this proclivity of mine? And whence cometh it, the behavior and the mot juste alike?

I first encountered the term ‘prestation’ in a graduate school course, not one I took myself but one that good friends of mine were in and talked about, in the way we talked about stuff in those dear dead days. The term is (and isn’t it obvious) French, and figures prominently in the work of Marcel Mauss. Here’s a nicely anonymous summary from Wikipedia, which saves us all a lot of time:

In his classic work The Gift, Mauss argued that gifts are never “free”. Rather, human history is full of examples that gifts give rise to reciprocal exchange. The famous question that drove his inquiry into the anthropology of the gift was: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” (1990:3). The answer is simple: the gift is a “total prestation”, imbued with “spiritual mechanisms”, engaging the honour of both giver and receiver (the term “total prestation” or “total social fact” (fait social total) was coined by his student Maurice Leenhardt after Durkheim’s social fact). Such transactions transcend the divisions between the spiritual and the material in a way that according to Mauss is almost “magical”. The giver does not merely give an object but also part of himself, for the object is indissolubly tied to the giver: “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them” (1990:31). Because of this bond between giver and gift, the act of giving creates a social bond with an obligation to reciprocate on part of the recipient. To not reciprocate means to lose honour and status, but the spiritual implications can be even worse: in Polynesia, failure to reciprocate means to lose mana, one’s spiritual source of authority and wealth. Mauss distinguished between three obligations: giving – the necessary initial step for the creation and maintenance of social relationships; receiving, for to refuse to receive is to reject the social bond; and reciprocating in order to demonstrate one’s own liberality, honour and wealth.

Hmmm, I think. Is this what I do, what I’ve always done, as long as I can remember? When I point somebody to a website (or, often enough, a whole bunch of websites) or press upon them books or inveigle them into listening to “just a few” musical examples or otherwise foist bits of my knowings upon them, is there a subtext of demand/desire for some kind of reciprocation? And have I known this for 40+ years, but never realized it as a recurrent pattern? Is this an essential part of my disquietude with teaching –that I wanted and expected and even craved reciprocal engagement from students and colleagues? Was I somehow wounded or disappointed when the response to my ‘gift’ was silence or indifference or bafflement or “will this be on the exam?” Yup, all that rings true, and it’s interesting to find a sort of resolution, and to recognize why the sigfile motto pleases me so.

Once I’d decided to hunt down the quiddity of prestation, I was launched on just the sort of sport I most enjoy, chasing through Google search results and the print resources in my home library, and of course through my own organic memory banks too. Dictionary definitions are basically pedestrian, and even the OED is rather pallid:

…a payment …especially a feudal due… The action of paying in money or service, what is due by law or custom, or in recognition of feudal superiority; a payment or the performance of a service so imposed or exacted; also, the performance of something promised…[but the Supplement adds a specifically anthropological sense]

A gift, payment or service that forms part of some traditional function in a society, given or due either to specific persons or to the group.

The term shows up in only a few sources in English, e.g. in the subtitle of Gloria Goodwin Raheja’s The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village. It’s all over the place in French, not too surprisingly, mostly in the fiscal sense. And it even appears on t-shirts:

prestation
So I’ve happily flushed several hours of this afternoon tilting at the windmills of the mind…

tagging and filing

Just how to manage one’s own troves of Information is a perennial problem, and I’ve never managed to be consistent over time or systematic (let alone rigorous) with any organizing scheme. I have drawers full of manila folders, boxes of [essentially unreadable, so why the hell do I keep them?] floppy and semi-floppy disks, piles of data-packed CDs and DVDs sporting idiosyncratically named files and directories, a bunch of disk drives that are more or less current, a vast array of archived directories and files at oook.info, and vinyl records and CDs and MP3s and videotapes and DVDs galore. And negatives (partially digitized) and digital photography images (on drives and backed up on DVDs), and of course books (though they’re at least listed at LibraryThing). All of this stuff is more or less meaningful, some of it is in active use and a lot more might be… and some is simply dead storage. I pretty much know what’s where, but finding any particular remembered thing can take a while and there’s always the danger/joy of being diverted along the way by a shiny something else. And more keeps arriving.

Of course I like it this way.

A current problem: I’ve used Delicious and Zotero and Evernote to collect links to webstuff that I found interesting and thought I might want to get back to sometime. Each of those services offers organizing features –collections, folders, tagging– and I’ve used them with my usual idiosyncratic abandon. There’s an argybargy collection at Zotero, bibliomania tag at Delicious, and on and on. Just to extract a list of my collections or tags would be interesting/valuable/useful, but so far I haven’t been able to figure out any way to get Zotero or Delicious to spit out just those classifiers (some little voice in the back of my brain is muttering about grep and exporting xml files, but I’m ignoring it). Sure, I could do it by hand, and that’s probably the fastest way to find out just what I really have. Such a list would be a mapping of my kaleidoscopic interests, and might inspire some ringmastering that might result in better access.

So about an hour later here’s the Delicious tags and Zotero collection names I’m living with. What to do next?

addendum: …and it’s happening again with the new blog. I can tag each post with a category (or more than one –this one is geekery/media/rumination) and add new categories ad lib. The current set for the blog is

anthropology/ argybargy/ biblio/ cartography/ casting/ desiderata/ education/ entanglement/ ethno/ geekery/ geography/ H5N1/ images/ language/ libraries/ media/ metastuff/ musics/ photography/ pome/ quote/ rumination/ tempora/ Turkey/ uncategorized/ vernacular/ weather/ Zeitgeist/

but that will expand as I need new descriptors, and I can guarantee that they’ll be …erm… idiosyncratic.