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In Twosome Twiminds: News from the Stroke Club – “Who Are We?”

During our stroke, we picked up the Takemine to test our left hand, self-diagnosing our condition. We noticed our left hand with interest; it formed the shape of the chord we had asked for, but not on the frets and strings we wanted. The result was discord, the guitar sounding badly out of tune. We moved to the Telecaster. The sound was distorted, the guitar either badly out of tune, the amplifier’s speaker blown, or our hand forming some new nonsense chord. Yet, “It sounds fine,” Susan said. “It sounds like it always does.”

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce recreates the experience of a stroke: “…and now, forsooth, you have become of twosome twiminds…” (188).

From 12-1-09 Open Culture: “Jill Bolte Taylor’s ‘Stroke of Insight’ talk reaches the top of many lists. What happens when a neuroanatomist experiences a massive stroke and feels all the brain functions she has studied (speech, movement, understanding, etc) suddenly start to slip away? And how do these losses fundamentally change who we are? You’ll find out in a crisp (and at times emotional) 18 minutes and 40 seconds. You can also read her book that elaborates on her life-altering experience. See My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.”

Join the Stoke Club by finding a quiet 20 minutes to watch Taylor’s talk on  video.

Rap Phonics Rhapsody: Eating the Alphabet and Spitting it Out

If the vowels decide to strike, we can probably keep the machines running, but if we lose the consonants, we’ll have to shut down.

How should we learn to read? The beginning reader, trying to make soundsense from the smell of ink of the “…miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops an wriggles and justaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed” (Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 118) soon understands that “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (19).

Today’s beginning reader (and teacher) sit at the bottom of a tower of babble constructed of politics made necessary by how education is funded and a grant industry, partisan learning theories (in which the neuroscientists are now investing a huge down payment), and good, old-fashioned my way is better than your way faculty room argument.

“It is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con’s cubane, a pro’s tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall” (117).

Over at The Frontal Cortex, the reading discussion was lively but short, and our hungry mind wanted more. So once again we picked up Joyce and reread a few favorite passages (aloud, the better to taste and hear the words, to slurp and listen as the vowels (like Alice’s EAT ME cake) made us bigger and the consonants smaller), and then we perused a few articles.

Nicholas Lehman reported in a 1997 Atlantic article that “The dispute operates at three levels, which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.” This came three years after Art Levine reported in an Atlantic article that “In education no question has produced so much bitter debate for so long as this one: What is the best way to teach children to read?”

The debate continues worldwide, with no sign of abatement, and the political influences continue, as shown in a 2006 Guardian article featuring Oxford’s Kathy Sylva, in which she discusses legislative interests. Also in 2006, Sylva brought attention to the issue of learning reading in a teaching expertise interview; here we find her discussing neurons, signaling that as debate continues, it is now infused with new ethos borrowed from neuroscience.

Should the words go from the page directly into the brain through the eyes, or should the words be eaten first (eat your p’s), rolled around on the tongue, felt, then spat out into the ears to worm their way into the brain? 

We don’t value fast food reading; we want the old-fashioned, sit down meal. Words have substance: they are smooth or rough, loud or quiet, ticklish or jolting. Words leave bruises that other words salve.  Words rap and rip their way into our consciousness as we tear them apart with our teeth. Syllables slide like bumpy water. We want to eat the alphabet and spit out the seeds – now that’s reading.

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities

LiberationsAt the bottom of her n+1 review of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, Amanda Claybaugh laments that Lamont “fails” to answer the promise of her book’s title. Claybaugh appears to buy into the title’s assumption, that professors think differently than others. But why would professors think any differently than anyone else? Indeed, from the professor quotes offered in the review, they appear to think exactly like everyone else: “so sick [of hearing]”; “it’s hard to articulate”; “nothing is perfect”; “just still didn’t get it”; and the ubiquitous “[don’t] be an asshole.” 

Claybaugh reads in the field of English; Lamont, sociology. It’s assumed one’s discipline amounts to a special pair of spectacles, and only through the lenses of the discipline can one fully appreciate, or aspire to, or do at all. Specialty is the extreme license: “…disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method….” And to the extent that “English is seen as having no method of its own,” it also has no discipline, and its “…proposals …are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines.” Blame it on the essay, on Montaigne, all that wandering, those long trials. One English professor advances that close reading is a method, but in an apparent lack of self-confidence worries “…whether historians might not ‘know how to do this better’ after all.” Too bad; she might have mentioned Louis Menand and his American Studies or his The Metaphysical Club, or Caleb Crain’s American Sympathy, examples of English folks wandering afield successfully.

Consider the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, on the run and under the influence of the former English professor Faber, joins the radicals living outside the city, memorizing books. They become the book they digest, the ultimate specialist. That’s a cool ending, but for a professor, why wouldn’t, as Buckminster Fuller gives us, specialization lead to extinction?

In his preface to Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, Ihab Hassan asserts the professors have climbed out of their boxes: “The discomforts of the academy are already too much in the public eye. Yet how many see, I wonder, that we now strike past the college administration and campus guard, past the curriculum, past scholarship itself, at an older idea of man? The famous drawing of Leonardo, arms spread and legs apart, giving the human measure to circle, square, and universe, no longer takes our breath away. A post-humanism is in the making. What will be its shape?” Alas, that was 1971; the revolution is now in crisis.

“For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaatoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz, where would their practice be or where the human race itself were the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all the fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 116).

Where, indeed.

E. B. White and the plumber

By the NoseIn December of 1930, E. B. White wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the garbageman. “They have the town by the tail and they know it,” White concluded, after a brief study of the can collector’s habits. We like to watch the trashman too, the descendants of White’s subjects, wrestling now with new regulations, recycling, knowledge of toxic waste, but still masters of noise and dust, their barking trucks heard for blocks, avalanches of glass announcing last call for trash. But while today’s garbageman may still have the city by the tail, surely it’s the plumber has it by the nose.

 

My father was a plumber, and asked us to join him in the trade; shucks, I wanted to continue school. But I worked with him summers and accompanied him on enough evening calls to achieve a kind of apprentice status. A neighbor would knock, a friend would call, a parishioner, a friend of a friend – a brief diagnosis on the phone and I was told which tools to grab from the garage and we were off, a doctor making a house call. Dad almost never accepted money for these evening jobs. He would accept a beer, sit, and talk.

 

No job was too awful, foul, or hard. With his bare hands he swept away monstrous crawl space spiders, reached into cold plugged up toilet bowls, chiseled oakum into cast iron joints – which I sometimes got to pour the molten lead into with the long handled ladle from the boiling pot. Our antagonists were usually stripped threads, worn washers, busted pipes, and all manner of backened slop. Dad did not relish repair work; by day he was a new construction plumber, working with new parts, not used. What he did relish was the opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people. He was the James Joyce of the plumbing trade. He could talk to anyone, for he had them, and he knew it, by the nose.

 

Time passing and enter George, the veteran plumber we now call when wet to the knees and elbows but I still can’t fix it. We called George recently to help us with a pipe cracked during the big freeze and snows. After the job we sat with George in the living room; he did most of the talking, and we listened. Before the pipe broke, I had been reading E. B. White, but after George left, I let E. B. sit, and I paused to think of my father, the plumber, and my decision to continue school.

Strangers to the future

When Nicholas Carr tries to walk a straight line in the web, he’s a different kind of stranger in a strange land. Google’s goal is not to make us smart, but rich, a goal it has surpassed. What passes for smart in the land of Carr is linear and vertical, long and deep, but what is it? Here’s a clue: deep dives like War and Peace can’t be comfortably experienced on the web, where readers value clarity, conciseness, and the ability to jump around with the speed of a photon.

Carr complains about blogging and bloggers, but his real lament may be for the adulteration of the professional writer’s medium, for the paid writer is accustomed to being compensated a spot in the box, but now has to sit in the general admission seats behind the center field fence with the blue-collar fans.

 

McLuhan said each new medium fills with the content of the old (e.g. vaudeville > radio > TV), before it develops its own content, and that every technology is an extension of the senses. He thought electronic media an extension of our central nervous system; no wonder we feel wired and jittery sitting at the computer surfing the web. And we prefer our posts short, with a picture or two; for what’s a book without pictures and conversations? Go ask Alice.

 

Blogs are not usually filled with essays. When they are they surely get skimmed by surfer-readers, one of Carr’s complaints; but isn’t that the way we read newspapers (mosaics) and most periodicals (mosaic-hybrid-newspapers)?

 

Carr claims that internet reading distracts us from linear and deep thinking, thus making us dumb. Linearity and “deep-reading,” the ability to read in a straight line for a long time, holding one’s intellectual breath long enough to absorb the view deep down, are capabilities Carr values, but he can’t prove that without them we grow stupid. Moreover, he’s filling the new medium with old content, which can only last temporarily, according to McLuhan. 

 

McLuhan, paraphrasing David Hume, said in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “…there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing. Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant” (p. 27). In choosing War and Peace to reason his claim, Carr signifies his value, for why didn’t he choose Finnegans Wake? “In other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back, and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message. Is it not evident that the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the structure and of configuration? Is that not what has happened in physics as in painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have shifted to total field, and we can now say, ‘The medium is the message’ quite naturally” (p. 28).

 

It’s not clear that Carr wants people to think as much as he wants them to think like him, not what he thinks, necessarily, but the way he thinks. The issue in controversy asks if the internet is changing the way we think (of course it is), and then asks a question related to the quality of thinking, but a different way of thinking is not automatically a worse way of thinking. The brain adapting yet again is not proven a bad change. Carr’s argument, that internet reading is making us stupid, suggests we were smart, but there’s unfortunately inadequate evidence to support that claim also. In any event, by the time we can determine if the change was for the better or worse, it’s likely that the written word as we now enjoy it will be a relic or fossil of some earlier culture. We are all strangers to the future.

Joyce’s “allforabit”

If at first glance we can’t figure out what Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is all about we might at least recognize one of its themes as the alphabet. Beckett told us Wake is about normal things in the usual sense: “Literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Explaining Vico, Beckett said, “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical.” Later, “Convenience only begins to assert itself at a far more advanced stage of civilization, in the form of alphabetism.” Beckett argues that Wake is “direct expression,” in a pre-alphabet way. “They (words) are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” 

Turning to Finnegans Wake itself, directly (never-minding the book-keepers), we find the alphabet itself. “(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curious signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thous had it out already) its world?” (p. 18).

Finnegans Wake, like most of Joyce’s work, is, in fact, memorable; its auditory impact sticks long after its photographic memory fades. For example, we continue to hear “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (pp. 18-19) long after we read it.

Wolfram von Eschenbach notwithstanding: “I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet” (last paragraph Book II, Parzival, translated and with an introduction by Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage. Vintage Books Edition, March 1961).

Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress, first published as New Directions Paperbook 331 in 1972.

Our Believer book award choices

Still reading the March/April 08 issue of the Believer, the “Film Issue.” Slavoj Zizek DVD included; have watched just the first part of it – a few ugly scenes from some lousy old horror films came too early in the DVD and we had to turn it off. That just means we are not fully committed to the values of the film community, which we knew – doesn’t say anything about Zizek.

We were reminded that Zizek was interviewed in the Believer July 04 issue, where we found his comments on Christianity interesting. The Mary Midgley interview in the February 08 issue was interesting on moral philosophy and imagination (anyone who can wrestle Dawkins down and pin him to the mat in seconds deserves more attention), so now we have a couple more books on our reading list. But the list is already so long, not sure when we’ll get to them. But we’re moving Mary up; we’ve just decided.

Anyway, the current issue includes the annual “…short readers’ survey” postcard, allowing one to “…participate in the forthcoming Believer Book Awards,” now in its fourth year, but only the second year they’ve invited readers to participate. We sent in our postcard. Here are our picks for fiction published in 2007 (three slots only): The Deportees, by Roddy Doyle (more reality of experience forged in the smithy of an Irish soul ); Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna (don’t remember what brought this our way, an advance reader’s edition – but remarkable effort, probably does not achieve all of its goals, but very funny, sad, and deeper than most readers deserve); and No One Belongs Here More than You, by Miranda July (written in part while walking and watching locally – which most of us don’t take time for).

What’s the point, of the Believer awards? Don’t know, but not too concerned with that question. We took the opportunity to take stock of what we read last year, fiction and non-fiction and journals and magazines and blogs and eZines and papers, and to look at the reading year ahead, continuing the long journey, getting on a train, leaving one city of books, and reading to another.

Joyce’s agenbite of books and boots

The slowly falling Mr. Dedalus, Stephen’s father, gives his daughter Dilly two pennies: “Get a glass of milk for yourself and a bun or a something. I’ll be home shortly” (p. 239). Dilly’s on her own now her mother’s passed, and needs money for food for herself and her siblings still at home. She knows her father’s habits. “Did you get any money?” (p. 237). But a few pages later Dilly surprises Stephen at an outdoor “slanted bookcart.” Stephen recalls a time Dilly’s face had “…glowed as she crouched feeding the fire with broken boots” (243):

-What have you there? Stephen asked.

-I bought it from the other cart for a penny, Dilly said, laughing nervously.

…-Mind Maggy doesn’t pawn it on you. I suppose all my books are gone.

-Some, Dilly said. We had to.

Earlier at the bookcart Stephen considered, “I might find here one of my pawned schoolprizes” (p. 242).

Of this scene Frank Budgen said, “Stephen has a strong sense of family solidarity…But who would save drowning people must first be a good swimmer” (p. 132), forgiving the resourceful Joyce for abandoning his family for a life of books they would have to burn to keep warm. But here’s Dilly, hungry in frayed clothes and broken boots, willing to spend one of but two pennies on a used book.

One thing’s certain, we won’t keep warm with eBooks. But maybe Budgen’s point was that Stephen was not a good swimmer. (Joyce was afraid of water.) 

Of books and boots, and their life-span, two “leathern vessels,” a term found in OED:

[ME. bote, a. OF. bote (mod.F. botte), corresp. to Pr., Sp., Pg. bota, med.L. botta, bota, of uncertain origin. Identified by Diez, Littré, etc. with F. boute (also, in mod.F., botte) butt, cask, leathern vessel; but ‘the phonology of the two words in OF. shows that they are quite distinct’ (P. Meyer). In med.L. also butta ‘butt’ and botta ‘boot’ are never confounded, though bota is frequent as a by-form of both, which has probably misled etymologists.]

Jazzskin

Words are sounds, first; then what do we do to them, to the sounds? Jung thought grief gave human voice to sound. This is the meaning of Norman O. Brown’s “The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, p. 256), though it seems equally plausible that joy, close friend to grief, might also be capable of producing a word or two. Dostoevsky contributes to the modern discussion in “Notes from Underground” with his often quoted “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” If so, the first words uttered by conscious man must have been sounds of pain: Ouch! If you prefer cartoons, a caveman accidentally rolling the stone wheel across his big toe. Joyce spelled it:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!)

(Finnegans Wake, p. 3).

Norman O. Brown: “How to be silent. In a dialectical view: silence and speech, these two, are one. Apollonius of Tyana said silence also is a logos. And words do not spoil the silence for those who have ears to hear what is left unsaid” (p. 256). Listen to Ella Fitzgerald scat singing. Instruments reproduce the human voice, first (another reason Cage objected to jazz – and worked with sounds apart from voice). Louis Armstrong thought his trumpet an extension of his voice, and he sings as he plays. What we do to words is similar to what Cage thought we do to sounds in making music (anthropomorphizing sounds we hear in nature). Words give conscious order to sound, allowing for the reproduction of sounds with fidelity, creating self-consciousness through language.

Here’s something recently dug out that might illustrate in a playful way:

JAZZSKIN was published in the fall 1973, issue 3, of silent quicksand, a magazine published by students of El Camino College.