Notes on “je me touché,” 4 essays by Jeremy Fernando

je me touché, Jeremy Fernando, 2017, Paradiso Editores, Delere Press, 77 pages.

Jeremy Fernando’s method of writing shows his acoustic, vibratory thinking, making connections, moving from one idea to another, enharmonic soundings, transported by his readings. In “je me touché” (it is i touch me – or, I me touch: I touch myself), he connects, in four essays, as cars interconnected on a train, Flann O’Brien’s short story “John Duffy’s Brother,” Melville’s “Bartleby,” the Occupy Movement, and, in an “Afterword,” sound, touch, and tune.

If Flann O’Brien’s Brother is a train, Melville’s Bartleby is a station, the last stop, the end of the line, no turnaround. Nothing to be done now but occupy that well-foreshadowed destination, where we hear night and day the whistle of a human train derailed, “the scream of the scrivener” (25). That scream is a kind of tinnitus. There is no actual sound. What we are hearing is a phantom noise in our imagination.

In the beginning was the word, and the word created community. In every beginning originating with a word, a commune is created, a habitat for the imagination. Community contains potential for sharing, for touching, without conflict, but with the possibility of divergence, which is risk, which becomes reading, a home, a place to dwell. And every household invites divergence, a library of dry goods.

Fernando begins “je me touché” with an immersion into Flann O’Brien’s short story “John Duffy’s Brother.” Following some strange inexplicable happening, Brother (unnamed, perhaps one of Beckett’s unnamable) believes himself to be a train. Children often play at being things – “Choo!Choo! Good and Plenty. Good and Plenty.” But Brother really is a train. What is a train? Following a linear path, tied to its tracks, a community of cars carrying sundry goods and people and animals, all properly ticketed or listed in a bill of lading, the train rolls, pulls, steams along, along the line, picking up speed, braking for curves, slowing on hills (“I think I can. I think I can”), forward to a destination, for every train has a purpose, clear and unmistakable. And part of its purpose it to run on time, less the socioeconomic demographics harmonizing the connecting stops becomes disrupted (45-48). We don’t care about the people on the bus any more than we care about the bus drivers. What we care about is the system, the fixed routes, the timetables, the robotic movement of time. We become the bus, the train. But the story is not about the train; it’s about our thinking we are the train, a secret few of us care to admit, less we be admitted. What happens when the drivers (today’s scriveners, writing a line along a predestined route) go on strike?

Our choices are limited. All authority lies in the tracks, and “it is only truly authority when ones does not have to use any force.” The system that runs on time requires no force but to enforce the schedule, which should require no force once set into motion. The individual who leaves the track, detours the bus route, goes on strike, does not necessarily wander far afield, but comes to rest, as does Melville’s Bartleby. Employed as a scrivener (a human copy machine), Bartleby inexplicably begins to “prefer not” to do any more copying, or have anything to do with the office or its community, yet he will not vacate the premises, for he prefers not to do that either. Bartleby’s boss, possibly the first humanist, works around him, but Bartleby eventually winds up in the Tombs, and we learn that he started out in the dead letter office. “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, Humanity,” the story ends.

We begin to see Fernando’s connections, how he unravels then weaves again the themes found in Brother, Bartleby, then the Occupy Movement, and lastly, in “Afterword,” into one wandering path. Along the way, we meet the likes of Zizek, Ronell, Kant, Otis Redding, Cervantes, Wall Street and its Bull (symbol, sculpture, art), reading as touching. “Prosopopoeia”: feeling, book, relation, touch. The word empathy is not used, but perhaps should be, as in to feel oneself is to grant oneself some altruistic version of how another might feel us. Henry Miller. In tune. Dash, the dash. Coming together. Risk. Love (“I love you,” 72-73). Laughter as music, as language.

Fernando’s layers upon layers of reading unfold, every word its history we must also remember, “keeping in mind” how others might have used it. And under the surface a stream, a river, runs undercover. Thus relation, within words: correspondence, interconnections, kin, intersections. Connecting Bartley with Occupy – occupy what? Nothing? The stairs? Bartleby occupies, to occupy already an occupation (“…why don’t they just apply themselves and get a job,” 37). Touch themselves? Now here: no where? To read is to touch oneself as another might touch, with permission.

This is not a pipe dream, but a book, hard copy.

(“Try this apple, Adam, very good”). Essay as fruit of the word.

Who reads when we read? Even reading something we ourselves have written, we wrote, yesterday or some time ago, we are not the same person reading as we were writing – we are not exactly that same person who sat at that very desk, now also changed, and wrote, for we have already a myriad of new experiences constantly adding to our connections.

I first read Melville’s “Bartleby: A Story of Wall Street” when, as a sophomore in high school, I was assigned Melville as my first term reading and research author assignment. I remember some of the other boys who got Hemingway, Steinbeck, Babbitt. I wasn’t all that happy to get Herman. But that attitude changed. Of course I loved Moby-Dick, but I tried to argue “Pierre; or, the Ambiguities,” written just after The Whale, the better work. Meanwhile, though he died before I was born, my paternal grandfather was an engineer on the Louisville Nashville Line. “So it goes.” Connections.

The Fall is into Technology: Notes with Index and Keywords for “Other Paradises,” Essays by Jessica Sequeira

“How to be silent….The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown, 256:257).

Is language a technology?

“Henri Bergson, the French Philosopher, lived and wrote in a tradition of thought in which it was and is considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of the collective unconscious. It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 83).

The fall is into technology.

Jessica Sequeira understands silence, and silence, the language of the ghost, is a necessary part of conversations and connections. “Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age” (Zero Books, 2018) collects essays Sequeira previously placed in various online venues, including Berfrois, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Gauss PDF, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Missing Slate, and 3:AM. The collected essays in hardcopy creates a reading emergence opportunity, where the whole is unpredicted by any one of the individual parts. Fragments are conjoined, scholastic and playful, connections clarified and augmented, and an original style, a way of being within the writing, emerges.

When I think of technology, of thinking about technology, I recall Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, R. Buckminster Fuller, and John Cage. In “Other Paradises,” Jessica mentions none of them. Yet she asks, “Why do people deliberately choose to play with ideas considered antiquated?” (Other Paradises, 1). Both O. Brown and McLuhan made startling discoveries rereading old texts and discovering or inventing new interpretations applicable to contemporary concerns.

Jessica begins with the fax machine (from a far different generation, I might have begun with the mimeograph machine). The fax machine requires sender and receiver, at odd ends. The confirmation “fax received” in no way implies fax read. So much for inference.

Melville’s Bartleby was a scrivener. Prior to that, he had worked at the dead letter office. A scrivener was a human copy machine. Bartleby works (and lives, as it turns out) in a law office, where his job is to handwrite copies of documents and proofread them aloud with the other scriveners. Bartleby winds up in the yard at the New York Tombs, where he “prefers not” to go on living, let alone copying. Bartleby’s ghost haunts today’s every copy and paste. Unlike the Sacramento writer William T. Vollman (who wrote his first book nights hunkered under an office desk in the insurance firm he worked at), Bartleby has nothing original to say, or maybe he does, but he “prefers not” to say it. Enter Kinko, University of Santa Barbara, I’ll bring the technology to ya, on the sidewalk, a copy food cart.

Inherited technology. Ibsen’s Ghosts. Oswald has inherited syphilis from his promiscuous father, now dead, the technology of euthanasia now Oswald’s only hope.

“Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization” (McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy, 187). McLuhan quotes from Curt Buhler’s “The Fifteenth Century Book: the Scribes; the Printers; the Decorators”: “What, then, became of the book-scribes? What happened to the various categories of writers of literary works, who practiced their trade prior to 1450, once the printing press was established?” (187).

Every technology absorbed and relied upon without adequate disaster plans creates potential detrimental reliance. We rely on the technology to our detriment once we abandon what we now perceive to be an antiquated technology. McLuhan considered technologies extensions of one of the five senses: eyeglasses extensions of the eyes, clothes extensions of the skin, etc. The computer was an extension of the central nervous system. Sequeira proposes that the abandoned technologies inhabit as ghosts the new machines.

The fall is into detrimental reliance. We want to get back to Paradise, any paradise will do, but we’ve lost the instructions, the skills, the magic prescriptions.

The Paradise, the one we apparently lost a long time ago, was probably a mosaic. It was not linear; it was not lineal; it was not literary. It was not sequential. It did not follow MLA, APA, or any other prescriptive styles. It was not an argument. There were no statements about which there would certainly be some disagreement. It was, in short, a paradise. But that’s not to say nights in paradise were not separate from days, not to say there were not ghosts (of angels, of devils), or that we were not part of a great food chain on land and at sea. I wrote a poem awhile back, which illustrates:

Cadmean Victory

They do not want for something to say
They run around and play all day
Syllabicating back and forth
No one asks what another is worth

At night they climb trees to sleep
They dream of mouths of lips and teeth
And breath of a land where speech
Is silly and fluid and free

Having no bowels they don’t see
The lithe ape thinking in a tree
Who would trap them in a man
And call himself can

So what and where are these “Other Paradises” Jessica Sequeira takes us to? How do we get there? I wasn’t long into her book when I wished for an index of some kind. An index would collect the extensive reading list now scattered throughout the text. “Other Paradises” is a mosaic, another reason McLuhan and O. Brown come to mind, and full of anecdotes and stories, and packed with references, but each essay contains a structure and harmony that informs the whole work (as does the work of Fuller). And all of that reminded me of John Cage, whose work is littered with anecdote, references, and playful asides. And an index would give some insight into the breadth of Sequeira’s reading, research, and interview experience, and it would illustrate how “Other Paradises” is a rich resource work. And, well, I wanted an index. Here following then, as introduction and review of Jessica’s new book, is a kind of index (a page number follows each entry, usually just the first reference, though many appear only once, and I’ve not listed them all):

Annotated Index to Jessica Sequeira’s “Other Paradises”

  1. David Hockney: 1. Foreshadows California. With Pacific Ocean beaches easy drives away, still, backyard swimming pools are popular, or a Hockney print of a swimming pool, which is almost the same thing, since the pools are usually empty, anyway.

 

  1. Lafcadio Hearn: 5, 9. “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.” The ghost, or the idea of ghosts, is a keyword throughout “Other Paradises.” Says Sequeira, “Ghosts are everywhere, busy laughing, crying, loving, plotting, dancing and sleeping just like humans….Technology left behind takes on a phantom presence” 6.

 

  1. Bancho Sarayashiki: 6. Some spirits are restless, for one reason or another.

 

  1. Fukagawa Hidetoshi and Tony Rothman: 7. “Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry.” Sequeira is interested in forms, shapes, lines that intersect, cross. Her essays assume geometrical shapes that can be described as poetic.

 

  1. “Japanese temple geometry problems: Sangaku” (Charles Babbage Research Centre), 7.

 

  1. Charles Babbage: 7-10. “Passages in the Life of a Philosopher.”

 

  1. Ada Lovelace: 8, 12.

 

  1. Commodore Matthew Perry: 10.

 

  1. Hank Mobley: 11. “Soul Station.”

 

  1. Banana Yoshimoto: 12. I read Banana’s novel “Kitchen” some years ago. Though it takes place in Japan, it contains a wonderful reference to Disneyland. I don’t know why I remember this. I’m not sure I do, accurately. I can’t remember if Banana had been to Disneyland, and it had made an impression upon her, or if one of her characters had gone there, or wanted to go there. I browsed quickly through “Kitchen” just now looking for Disneyland. I found only one small reference, to the Jungle Cruise.

 

  1. Musil: 13, 21.

 

  1. J. Gordon Faylor: 13, 20. “Registration Caspar.” I’m not sure about so-called “conceptual writing.” Words are like the seven daughters of Eve, each containing a mitochondrial genome.

 

  1. Kathy Acker and Tan Lin: 15.

 

  1. Beckett: 15, 17.

 

  1. Dante, Beatrice: 15.

 

  1. Wittgenstein: 15.

 

  1. Franco Moretti: 16.

 

  1. Proust: 17, 88. Must one go out?

 

  1. Martin Ramirez: 19.

 

  1. Jess Collins: 19. “Narkissos” (a large drawing). I was happy to see this section on Collins, references to the Beats and San Francisco. The Beats brought poetry back to earth (after which Bukowski ran it into the ground).

 

  1. George MacDonald, Pythagoras, Goethe, Joyce, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Jack Spicer, James Broughton: 19-20.

 

  1. King Ubu Gallery: 19.

 

  1. Manhattan Project: 19. Where Jess Collins had worked for a time. He apparently exchanged plutonium for poetry.

 

  1. Robert Duncan: 22. Poem, “Just Seeing.” Duncan lived with Collins. Missing from the conversation is Charles Olson.

 

  1. “The Macabre Trunk”: 1936 Mexican film, 24.

 

  1. Richard Lower: 26. “Tractatus de code item de motu et colore sanguinis.” Title apparently does not tell all.

 

  1. Mark Zuckerberg: 26.

 

  1. “Teche” (dance song): 27. An original song by Jessica: “Bad-a-bing-be-boom-ba!”.

 

  1. Schrodinger’s Cat: 28.

 

  1. Pascal: 29.

 

  1. Liliana Colanzi: 34. “Our Dead World.”

 

  1. Edmundo Paz Soldan: 35.

 

  1. Roberto Bolano, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Philip K. Dick: 35.

 

  1. Juan Terranova: 35. “The Flesh.”

 

  1. Alison Spedding: 36-38. “Wachu Wachu”; “Cultivation of coca and identity in the Yungas of La Paz”; “Kausachun-Coca”; “Manuel and Fortunato”; “The Wind in the Mountain Range”; “Saturnia from time to time.”

 

  1. King’s College: 37. A lovely, lyrical description on page 41. Sir John Wastell, 43.

 

  1. “Downtown Abbey”: 37.

 

  1. Alexander the Great: 37. And introducing Alexandra the Great.

 

  1. Gaganendranath Tagore: 48.

 

  1. Partha Matter: 48.

 

  1. Henri Bergson: 49. Book on Laughter.

 

  1. Whistler: 50.

 

  1. “Resurrection”: 50. Painting.

 

  1. George Meredith: 52.

 

  1. Gonul Akkar: 54. “Silemezler Gonlumden,” pop song.

 

  1. Zeynep Karagoz: 54. (Maker).

 

  1. Zbigniew Herbert: 58. “The Bitter Smell of Tulips” in “Still Life with a Bridle.”

 

  1. The Flying Pigeon: 61.

 

  1. Chloe Aridjis: 61-63. “Topographia de lo insolito” (Robert-Houdin); “The Child Poet,” “Book of Clouds,” “Assunder.”

 

  1. Mary Richardson: 69. “Rokeby Venus.”

 

  1. Leonora Carrington: 70. “The Oral Lady,” “The Hearing Trumpet.”

 

  1. Arthur Eddington: 75. “Science and the Unseen World.”

 

  1. Richard Pearse: 75.

 

  1. Talleyrand: 78.

 

  1. Olivia Caramello: 80.

 

  1. Louis-Eustache Audot: 84. “La Cuisiniere de la Campagne et de la Ville, ou nouvelle cuisine economique” (recipes).

 

  1. Jean Lorrain: 85. “Monsieur de Bougrelon.”

 

  1. Willem Claeszoon Heda: 87. “Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie” (painting, 1631).

 

  1. Svetlana Alpers: 90. “The Art of Describing.”

 

  1. Eva Richter: 90.

 

  1. Barbara Payton: 91. “I Am Not Ashamed.”

 

  1. Henri Roorda: 91. “My Suicide.”

 

  1. “Spontaneity: A History in 12 Volumes”: 92.

 

  1. Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy: 94. “Scenes of Domestic Bliss” (radio sketch, 1934). The Hilda Mundy here is the performer, not the Bolivian poet. This section of “Other Paradises” is laugh out loud funny.

 

  1. Laura Villanueva Rocabado: 96. The Bolivian writer whose best known pen name is “Hilda Mundy” (see note 64, above). Jessica unravels the connection between the performer and the poet. Mundy’s “Pirotecnia,” page 98.

 

  1. “Bambolla bambolla”: Hilda Mundy’s journalism, 96. Phrase < Gongora, 97. Sequeira translates “Bambolla bambolla” as “look at me look at me,” a kind of ostentatious selfie.

 

  1. “Dum Dum”: 96.

 

  1. Brenda Lee: 97.

 

  1. La Mariposa Mundial: 96. Mano maravillosas: 97. Pagina Siete: 97 (Rocio Zavala Virreira). Jessica quotes Virreira who says that, “to speak of Hilda Mundy is to leave the path, change direction, try out new things. It is to think not in terms of books, but magazines. Not complete sets, but clippings or incomplete collections” 97. Something like that might be said of Jessica Sequeira’s work.

 

  1. “Impresiones de la Guerra del Chaco”: 98. Hilda Mundy text (“journalistic poetry”).

 

  1. “Decision”: 103. Poem by Jessica Sequeira.

 

  1. Srini Vasa Ramanujan: 104.

 

  1. Duchamp: 104.

 

  1. Carlos Fonseca, “Colonel Lagrimas,” 104. Sequeira quotes an interesting section from Fonseca’s text: “At one point, the colonel writes a postcard to his character Maximiliano: You know, Maximiliano, that this Ronald Reagan, man of a thousand facets and a dapper walk, illustrious president of the United States, had the most interesting job before he found success as an actor: he was an announcer for American football games. The strange thing, the magnificent thing, Maximilian – and here is the point of this anecdote – is that this future president didn’t watch what he was narrating: he simply received bits of information, strung like rosary beads, whose whole he never saw, loose bits of information about a spectacle he didn’t see, but whose tone he imagined in a kind of blind broadcasting. Our project is a bit like that. Broadcasting for an age without witnesses, a kind of blind narration of this dance of crazies. So, learn to tell without seeing, ”107. I wondered what McLuhan might have made of “learn to tell without seeing.” McLuhan thought with the advent of text we exchanged an ear for an eye. Hearing would have been the paramount sense in paradise, not seeing. Sight has come to dominate the senses, according to McLuhan, because of print, another example of detrimental reliance. But for Sequeria, the interest in the quote has to do with connections. She writes: “An obvious displacement exists everywhere, between mind and behavior, event and interpretation, fact and memory.” Just so, McLuhan said football was a more intuitive sport for television than baseball, more mosaic, less specialized. Television, it’s mosaic screen full of dots of which we only see a few and fill in for the rest, can not cover the specialized positions of baseball all at once. That all-at-once-ness becomes the value (what we want, even if what we want is not good for us) of social media programs. Baseball is a game of continuous lines, football of fragments. And learning without seeing is having the text before us, the illuminated manuscript – what is it that is illumined? The reader of “Other Paradises” may feel a bit like the narrator of a blind broadcast.

 

  1. Ricardo Piglia: 110.

 

  1. Horizontal: 110.

 

  1. Borges. His ghost is everywhere.

 

  1. Gabriel Josipovici: 112.

 

  1. J. L. Austin: 113.

 

  1. Christopher Priest: 114. “The Inverted World.”

 

  1. Rion Amilcar Scott, “Insurrections,” 116. “Satire doesn’t just mean ‘being funny’; it’s an existential mode that allows one to take on both joyful and painful subjects from inventive, oblique angles, allowing one to make almost anything one’s subject with good humor, precision and grace” says Sequeira, page 116. Scott is the satire editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House. When I was an English teacher, I was struck by how often my adult learners were slow to pick up on or were offended by satire. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was occasionally even taken literally. That is the power of the authority of text, as McLuhan explained, and it’s why “fake news” is so prevalent today. “Oh. Irony. See, we don’t get that here. We haven’t had any irony up here since ’83, when I was the only practitioner of it. I stopped doing it because I was tired of being stared at” (Steve Martin’s character, C. D., in the film “Roxanne”).

 

  1. Maggie Nelson, “Bluets,” 122.

 

  1. Janice Lee, “essays,” 122. Lee, the founder of the on-line “Entropy.” Says Sequeira of Lee’s essays: “…it’s the accumulated effect of phrases that’s of value here, not any individual quote.” The same might be said of the accumulated effect of my footnotes to “Other Paradises.”

 

  1. Fernando Diez Medina, 127.

 

  1. Roberto Prudencio Romecin, 127; “On books and authors,” 128.

 

  1. Jaime Saenz, 128. (Yes, I know, my format has changed. I got tired of the extra effort required of typing a colon where a comma will do. Consistency is another detrimental reliance phenom resulting from the printing press.)

 

  1. Sequeira is a reader and advocate for Bolivian poetry: Monica Velasquez Guzman; Oscar Cerruto; Edmundo Camargo; Raul Otero Reiche; Blanca Wiethuchter; Humberto Quino; Emma Villazon; Julio Barriga; Hilda Mundy; Edmundo Paz Soldan; Liliana Colanzi; Paola Senseve; Sergio Gareca; Pedro Shimose: 129-131. Says Sequeira: “Bolivia is an increasingly prosperous country with a growing middle class, widespread Internet connection even in the tiniest pueblos, and a population of educated and mobile young people with academic scholarships and international travel experiences. Traditional geographical and ethnic distinctions have begun to blur. A writer may fill page after page alone in her room, then take that notebook to a bar for a reading, one she will perhaps repeat later on in New York, Santiago, or Moscow. Perhaps – is this just a fantasy? – the poets of Bolivia form one small part of a world wide movement in which nations as we know them disappear, along with progressive ‘developmentalist’ thinking, to leave only the pure flow of cash, art and ideas,” 134. McLuhan did not think it fantasy. According to McLuhan, the printing press was responsible for nationalism, boundaries, margins, and the marginal man. But we may have to let go of text to realize the “blur.” We must wander (essay, assay) outside the margins, off the page.

 

  1. Pierre Bonnard, 134.

 

  1. Walter Benjamin, 139.

 

  1. David Winters, “Infinite Fictions,” 139.

 

  1. Escher, “Belvedere,” 1958 print, 139.

 

  1. Goethe, 135.

 

I will now add a list of “keywords” or short phrases I noted as particularly relevant to “Other Paradises,” and end with a few quotes:

Keywords to “Other Paradises” (in no particular order, but arranged as a mosaic):

arcadia, disappearing, antiquated machines, ghosts, slowness, loss of use, machine, prose, lyrical, satire, UFO’s, damage, violence, fiction, narrator, suburb (132), language as technology (113), questions and questioning (throughout), reading list (113), Snakes and Ladders, theory, comedy (53), Los Angeles, disconnectednesses, poetry, past, social realism, symbol, pop, irony, whimsical, play, playful, invention, language, food, text as horizontal ladder, paintings, hand (54-55), style example (56), sentence structure (shadow play), joke (57), tulip (58), modesty (58), guild, basic needs (59), writing like a lathe (59), a good example of Sequeira’s overall writing process (60), transitions (as unit of composition), interstices, intersections, interruptions, parentheticals, technique (62), first robot (61), Chloe Aridjis interview (61-64), defamiliarization (64), notebook (65), French poets (67), “eyes darting back and forth” (68) – this reminded me of Vonnegut’s Bokononism, technology (72), fragmented, linear (79), Mulberry flag (82), cherry jam (84), preserve, preservation, save, value, paradise of decay (92-3), ostentation (102), observing, questions (104), impossible connections (105), “seemingly disparate concepts, link (108), intelligence (109), reading, utopian, political action (110), metafiction (111), emergence lit (112), reading list (113), non-linear (113), magic (114), theory of everything (115 – but no mention of Lisi), hills, goodness, Highway 1 (19), language as technology, change, literature, words (113).

And here is something Sequeira says on page 71 I made note of because I think it speaks to her writing as well as Carrington’s 92-year-old woman: “Curious and open-minded, with a sense of humor, she can get away with being a little bit crazy, connecting everyday things in odd ways, and discovering the weird links and hidden situational puns fusing different tectonic plates of experience.”

“At what point does a multiplication of anecdotes transform into the unified vision of a book?” (112). Or of a book review, for that matter?

Another quote where Jessica could be talking about her own work: “…a means of creating a fictional life for oneself that is whimsical yet self-interrogating, sustaining argument but with soul breathed into it through humor and a healthy does of silliness” (122).

“What it’s about is an attitude, the creation of an atmosphere” (125).

“But recurring to lines of narrative history to ‘explain’ a style often has little to do with the way actual poets write” (128).

“Thinking in lateral, non-positivist, indirect ways, one can begin to engage with the ghosts of an occasion, starting with its imagined resonances and effects. Even as one enjoys the present, one can remain attuned to traces and echoes, histories and premonitions” (139).

Sequeira, Jessica. Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. Zero Books. 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Inventions

Writing strategy textbooks often move us quickly through the rhetorical modes before introducing argument, where we are invited to pick a topic of interest, something we’re passionate about, but then are asked to write a research paper, as opposed to a personal essay, presumably to distinguish between mere opinion and rigorous discourse, where claims are backed by reasoned evidence and assumptions are explained. Hot topic items are sometimes suggested: abortion, immigration, addiction, gun control, health care, same sex marriage, legalizing marijuana. Following a research paper rubric, we search for articles for and against our stance. Thus the project begins in dichotomy, seemingly necessary to building an arguable thesis. But we usually go into the research topic with preconceived convictions and deep-rooted assumptions, and we don’t learn much about the topic, writing, or ourselves in the assignment process. It’s an exercise in frustration and futility, for the canon of hot topics has been worked over like road kill squirrel picked clean by hungry birds. And writing instructors, hungry for something new to read and talk about, but finding the trite and stale canned paper, can only respond to the mechanics of the research paper rubrics, issuing tickets for standard English violations, citations for lousy references, deductions for technicalities – as they scan the paper highway for plagiarism. Instructive readers will at least be able to comment on how effectively we have blended references into our discussion, but the standard research paper is doomed from the start to what has become an up or down vote, the proofs multiple choices from an existing canon, the conclusion an echo of something that’s already been said. The result is too often a laboriously boring displeasure for writer and reader.

We are in no position to tell others what they want, or even what they should want, while we all may value things that are not necessarily good for us. We need to invent, but to invent a solution, we must first see a problem. If we don’t see problems, we are not thinking. We are numb to our environment, unable to find the source of our limits. We must invent if we expect to think. But how can we uncover problems if we don’t know what we want? If we don’t know what we want, we’re unaware of specific antagonists creating obstacles. But how do we know what we want?

We lament that we are growing into a culture of non-readers, for reading is the [supposed] old way of learning what we want, but while The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great novel, did Huck ever read one? Tom Sawyer, Huck’s good buddy, is the middle class boy who covets pirate book fantasies, the expert who has done his research. But Huck’s genius is that he thinks for himself. He’s able to think for himself because he knows what he wants, and because he knows what he wants, he correctly identifies his antagonists, and because he knows what’s in his way, he’s able to invent solutions. But what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.

Why is research so important to academic progress and success? One answer is specialization, but specialization leads, as Fuller explained, to extinction. And academics are becoming extinct, the ones who teach writing, anyway, as their peers in competing disciplines begin to teach their own writing processes, better suited to their own needs, better suited to specialization and funding requirements. In English class, the topic seems almost not to matter anymore. The topic of the English class used to be literature, the essay, language. But the contemporary English class seems to have no topic of its own, thus the importance of picking one, passionately freewheeling. Consider the following, from a recent Chronicle article, suggesting the research paper should be abandoned:

“‘After all, students exhibit the same kinds of mistakes at the end of their first-year composition courses as they do at the beginning, regardless of the type of institution or whether the course is taught by a full-time faculty member or an adjunct,’ Ms. Jamieson said. ‘Part of the problem, she added, is the expectation that faculty members trained in composition have expertise in the subject being researched, whether it is abortion, the death penalty, or gun control [and there you have it, the canon’s greatest hits]: Unless it’s in your field, you don’t know what a good source is and what isn’t’” (“Freshman Composition is Not Teaching Key Skills in Analysis, Researchers Argue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 21, 2012). (Also see: “Skimming the Surface”; The Citation Project.)

But the problem as described seems to relate to topic, which we assume is specialized, for why can’t an experienced, general interest reader tell a good reference from a bad one, particularly in a “Freshman Composition” class? In any case, we don’t always start our writing with a topic. We begin with reading and taking notes as we read. As our notes begin to develop into thoughts, reflective, evaluative comments on what we are reading, our topic emerges. The research paper writing assignment, as it’s usually rubriced (red chalked – it’s where the English teachers got the idea to correct using red ink), teaches a way of writing that few writers actually use. It’s not the way we write. We don’t begin with topics. We begin with reading, and we discover what we want to say as we attempt to join the discussion, the conversation of a particular community, and we know who’s working in the community, and what they’ve said. We know where to find them, and how they talk. We don’t need to apply the credibility and reliability tests. That’s done through the process of peer review – so the myth goes.

Does specialization in the academy prohibit a common reader response, disallow generalized thinking? But not even English teachers can read everything, and perhaps it’s because they haven’t read everything that they might be quick to dismiss Wiki, blogs, et al., and insist, instead, on scholarly journal references, never mind the nonsense that also goes on in that arena (I’m reminded of “The Music Man”: “Just a minute, Professor [Hill], we want to see your credentials!”). Lack of experiential reading might also be why some insist on writing or grammar “Handbooks,” prescriptive and expensive tomes that become their own justification.

Claims are supposed to be debatable, to invite argument. Argument is a good. But specialization and the consequences of funding seem to be putting unusual pressure on the hallowed process of academic discourse and peer review. Three recent examples illustrate: “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” from the November, 2010 Atlantic, exposes fraud in the medical journal peer review process, and funding appears to be a significant source of the problem; “Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism,” from the March 5th New Yorker, describes another debate, this one focussed on E. O. Wilson’s recent reversal of his prior stance on the explanations of altruistic behavior, a change of mind which has earned him the scorn of his peers – and, again, funding would seem to underlie much of the critical response; and “Angry Words,” from the March 20th Chronicle, summarizes the ongoing brouhaha in language study, and Geoffrey Pullum followed up, also in the  Chronicle, with “The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute” – the title alone might sound surprising to the general interest reader of academic research papers. The three examples taken together don’t inspire much confidence in the processes at work, yet the comment discussion following Pullum’s short article is instructive in a number of ways. It appears that specialists and scholars engage in writing inventions of all kinds and don’t appear to have the market on credibility and reliability cornered. But it’s enlightening and heartening, and, perhaps, entertaining, to see that they are human and given to the human foibles inherent in argument and opinion, in the fight for truth, justice, and the Academic way.

Related:

Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”; or, the Essay as Argument: Why The Research Paper Should be Abolished

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”; or, the Essay as Argument: Why The Research Paper Should be Abolished

The more we fragment the further we get from the emergent whole, a picture that is satisfying for its very wholeness – in a way that an examination of any one pixel or isolated group of pixels can not be satisfying. A study of a part of something can never be as interesting as a study of the whole to which the part belongs. Yet the Humanities has fragmented into so many divergent and divested parts that an emergent, whole picture is now easy to miss. And this is true not just in the continuing bifurcations of disciplines, but in the splitting apart of self-contained disciplines. Consider, for example, the English department. English was once the repository for the study of literature, by which was meant a unified study of composition, language, and literature. Perhaps one concentrated in language and linguistics as opposed to literature. Still, the proper study of the English major was literature. (A recent article in The Oregonian reported that in most of the last 20 years the Portland Public School district has ignored its ESL responsibilities to disastrous results. This should come as no surprise, since we have meantime mangled teaching English as a 1st language.)

The English department is now the place students go to learn to write research papers, and even this part is at risk, as various specialty disciplines have already begun to teach their own. The “art for art’s sake” attitude is in part responsible, for it denies the literary work its ideas, while “art for art’s sake” is an ideology, not an idea. In “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” Trilling explains: “Whether we deal with syllogisms or poems, we deal with dialectic – with, that is, a developing series of statements.” In other words, what we have come to call “creative literature,” is no different in form than what we must now call “non-creative literature,” though of course there is no such thing: there is only one literature, all of it creative, and while literature may consist of various genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, poetry and drama, the impulse to further split non-fiction into creative or non-creative fiction can only have its source in funding disputes arising from the splitting of the discipline – for it can’t possibly have anything to do with reading, writing, or critical thinking. This is true because, as Trilling says, “The most elementary thing to observe is that literature is of its nature involved with ideas because it deals with man in society, which is to say that it deals with formulations, valuations, and decisions, some of them implicit, others explicit.”

Ideas are organic; ideology is manufactured. Ideas are malleable; ideology is rigid: “Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.” And so in ideology, Trilling explains, we lose sight of this wholeness: “…an intimate relationship between literature and ideas, for in our culture ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology.” If Trilling could say that “poetry is a heuristic medium…a communication of knowledge,” then why do we feel compelled to divorce essays (personal or any other kind or name the latest textbook has invented) from research papers? The very idea of the research paper is essay turned ideology. We must either abolish the research paper or watch literature continue its slow demise toward extinction, an extinction of ideas.

An Argument of Definition: A Definition of Argument; or, The Light Without the Light Within

Have you ever read something and thought, I am not alone – there’s someone else here on the island with me. Someone has been speaking to me, and for me; I just maybe have not been listening in the right places. Personal essays are “arguments”; they are not “creative non-fiction.” On the contrary, the research papers are “non-creative non-fiction.” Yet whenever we write, we create. Creative non-fiction is a misnomer. All the world is an argument. Who wants to read an impersonal essay? What is an impersonal essay? One written by a machine? A bureaucratic procedure bulletin? There is no such thing as objectivity; everything we say and do, our every utterance, the clothes we wear, our music, how we cut our hair, betrays our beliefs, assumptions, values.

The time is 8 in the morning. Let’s qualify that claim; it’s 8 in the morning somewhere. But I’m writing in the Web, the country where it’s always light out, or light in. In any case, the sun rose in the east quite early this morning, though I’ve no proof of that, not even empirical proof, since we’ve cloud cover again, and anyway I was asleep at the time, whatever time it was. I was awakened by my neighbor who is lately up at does, as e. e. cummings said, pounding away on the deck of the ark he’s building. I should qualify too that since we are north of the 45th parallel, it’s not quite accurate to say that the sun rose in the east. We’re almost to the summer solstice, when the sun here rises in the northeastern sky. Of course, if we were standing on the moon looking down, this idea of the rising sun would be a curious notion indeed.

All non-fiction is a fiction of a particular community arguing to explain itself to itself in an inexplicable world. You’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes, Beckett said, to note inherent chaos. Beckett wrote fiction, primarily, and his fiction was also an argument aimed at explaining the inexplicable. And he did a pretty good job of it, too. Here he is, at the beginning of his novel Molloy (1951) , explaining what it means to be a writer (or a student, perhaps):

“There’s this man who comes every week…He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money…When he comes for the fresh pages he brings back the previous week’s. They are marked with signs I don’t understand. Anyway I don’t read them. When I’ve done nothing he gives me nothing, he scolds me. Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know.”

Things are falling apart in the Humanities. But the Humanities have been in crisis ever since the 1970’s, and for a century before, as evidenced by Ihab Hassan’s anthology Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution (1971). Everyone is starting to wear their pants rolled. No one is certain which person to use anymore. No matter what we may be doing, at any given moment, Basho said, it has a bearing on our everlasting life. In his preface to Liberations, Hassan said, “For more than a century now, the Humanities have suffered from a certain piety which even Revolution does not escape. True liberations engage some deeper energy, quiddity, or humor of life.” What should we be doing at any given moment? This is a question only the Humanities can answer. Then again, it’s a question only the Humanities could ask.