Archive for February, 2010

Atwood: the world grows around you

February 7, 2010 2 comments

Writing seems to have this increasingly outward-looking psychological mechanism–Margaret Atwood says that writing encourages a natural progression beyond one’s first hopes in art and beyond one’s narrow self:

The third period [of my writing] runs from 1976 … to the present [1982]. It covers my growing involvement with human rights issues, which for me are not separate from writing. When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger. There’s no contradiction.

When you begin to write you’re in love with the language, with the act of creation, with yourself partly; but as you go on, the writing–if you follow it–will take you places you never intended to go and show you things you would never otherwise have seen. I began as a profoundly apolitical writer, but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do: I began to describe the world around me. (“Introduction,” Second Words 14-15)

It would be interesting to see if we could trace this progression in different writers using different genres, including the new social media.

Coupland on atomized culture, Peterson on chatter

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

In the NY Times Deborah Solomon asks and writer Douglas Coupland answers:

How would you define the current cultural moment?

I’m starting to wonder if pop culture is in its dying days, because everyone is able to customize their own lives with the images they want to see and the words they want to read and the music they listen to. You don’t have the broader trends like you used to.

This is an appropriate anxiety for our time, and Alan Rusbridger talked interestingly about it in his state of journalism talk in the spring of 2006. Jay Rosen calls it “audience atomization” and he sees evidence that social media have created opportunities for it to be overcome. In order to think further, we can’t stop with this little quotation in Solomon’s usual “edited and condensed” NY Times Magazine Sunday interview.

Similarly, we can’t stop at the ending of the new Charles Peterson review essay about Facebook in the NYROB:

But most of us still know, despite Facebook’s abuse of what should be the holiest word in the language, that a News Feed full of constantly updating “friends,” like a room full of chattering people, is no substitute for a conversation. Indeed, so much of what has made Facebook worthwhile comes from the site’s provisions for both hiding and sharing. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that some things shouldn’t be “shared” at all, but rather said, whether through e-mail, instant message, text message, Facebook’s own “private message” system, or over the phone, or with a cup of coffee, or beside a pitcher of beer. All of these “technologies,” however laconic or verbose, can express an intimacy reserved for one alone.

Those are the fears; what are the hopes?

Catching up with Kuusisto

February 7, 2010 1 comment

It’s a pleasure to catch up with Stephen Kuusisto’s blog, Planet of the Blind.* Some recent highlights:

We are listening for something; we’re trying to protect our souls. We want to know what words keep others alive; what words keep the soul reading. We want to make an ark out of this knowledge. But a poem will do. (“Poetry Singular, Plural Then“)

[It’s true; we should live as if something were at stake, as if our lives mattered, as if art helps.]

The plural poet knows that her audience “is” the world, the world in which words will find their utility; that words are much like the fallen acorns gathered by wintering animals, they must be carried away and become something beyond their first intention; that poetry lives in the bewildering weather of others, many many… (“Poetry Singular, Plural Then“)

[It’s true; good writing lives in and among the actors who we might mistakenly think of as passive because we call them readers.]

Then there is “Think Beyond the Label, Pilgrim,” which reminds us that we live partially in the discourses of our culture [and can break things open there from time to time] and quite a bit too in bodies that need jobs to pay rent and eat decently and like life and ourselves and others. Hurray for symbolic breakthroughs; hurray for decent jobs.

Those changes in discourse matter: think about the feeling many of us had in about 2002 that the press had stopped insisting that global warming was just a theory that one might readily dismiss; think of Frank Rich today in the NY Times saying how important it was this week that an American general said before Congress that it was just rather an ordinary fact of life that homosexuals had served well in the military all the decades of his career, and nothing much happened in the way of an uproar in the media. But one grim view of the end of the civil rights movement would be a person of entitlement thumbing his nose at a good number of fellow citizens and saying, “Sure, vote all you want. I still have a better house and job than you have, if you even have a job or a house. Who cares if you can vote?”

We live in the symbolic realm of culture; we live in houses and bodies supported by our jobs. We live in two realms of justice and hope for justice.


*S. K. and I were classmates, writing poetry in graduate school, so it’s not like reading the work of a stranger.

Exceptionalism and tribal meaning

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Stephen Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind posting on being a writer sets out a contrast between the exceptionalism that tempts a writer to pull rank based on the special work he/she does, on the one hand, and the need for tribal meaning that actually tempts lots of people to write (or participate in other arts, too). The posting reminded me of an encounter with a doctor who seemed steeped in the exceptionalist attitude and another encounter with a doctor/writer who felt otherwise. I left this comment on Steve’s site:

I took someone to see a plastic surgeon once. The doctor had a huge collection of diplomas and awards in his hallway, and I saw that his M.D. degree was from the University of Iowa. He was there at the same time I was doing my own graduate work. Breaking the ice, I mentioned that we had been in Iowa City at the same time. I mentioned what I studied, and he said that he had been on the other side of the river, performing surgeries. A slight chill swept through the room, brought on by his tone of voice as he compared what I had been doing with his own lofty work.

Not in the mood to offend the doctor who was about to take care of someone who mattered to me, I let it pass, but I remembered meeting the surgeon/writer Richard Selzer back in Iowa City, and chatting with him in the hallway of the English-Philosophy Building, near the offices of the Writers’ Workshop, and getting the unmistakable impression that writing had deepened his life as a doctor in ways that he found very satisfying and that made him proud. He felt no need to pull rank– we were people who liked to write in order to make sense of our lives, having a conversation about it. Very nice of him, I thought. We had this common ground.

There is exceptionalism, as you say, and then there is tribal meaning. According to the one story, I failed to become the next great American poet and no dissertations will be written about my balanced compositions. According to the other story, I am almost always happy when I have been writing, and some of what I write reaches people.

As Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

In the same spirit, here is Kurt Spellmeyer setting up a chapter that considers perhaps the same contrast that Kuusisto offers:

So completely have professionals remade knowledge in their own image that most of us find it had, and possibly absurd, to seek knowledge fro anyone else. (Arts of Living 221)

The understanding of knowledge he describes seems so familiar that it is no surprise that experts often inhabit it without giving a second thought; the tone that comes from it helps to explain the great anger that boils up from time to time in our country over the ways of the powerful, their sense of entitlement, their satisfaction with things as they are, their control of public discourse and even common sense.

As in an earlier entry on Kuusisto’s writing, some fail to notice the opportunities for new knowledge embodied in difference. And then there is the matter of democracy.

An ethical distinction

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Discussing an organization serving a large group of journalists, Jay Rosen recently said that they were “evolving from (what was essentially) a professional club to a community of concern.” (40:25 of Rebooting the News #38) Both versions of the group are probably motivated substantially by a shared concern about the portion of the world they write about (education), but in the second the concern for preserving the group’s authority has been diminished in favor of collaboration. The shared value of their subject matter comes more to the front; self-interest may recede. It’s an ethical distinction that may be easier to make in the era of powerful collaborative web tools. Also, the whole thing seems more relaxing.

Embodied differences, or the angel that still has no head

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

“Embodied differences,” writes Stephen Kuusisto, “are the nerve of our nation’s body politic.” And I am tempted by that term, by the feeling that it must have a reach a good deal beyond the topic of disability as he considers it in a recent blog post. The post itself begins with the writer markedly under the weather, taunted by a demon that knows how to stir up self-contempt among the diminished and embattled. Yet there is work to be done back at the university: “We think about this [work] rather often for we are like a marble cutter of human rights: steady, habituated, working on an angel that still has no head.” The university knows enough to invite a diverse group to work and study there, but still finds them to be alien and inconvenient. Offering only a “grudging and minimal inclusion,” the faculty fail to notice “the kinds of questions that disability can productively promote.” When the customary discourse need not be stretched to reach as far as the other person — the history, the specificity of experiences and meanings the other person embodies — then people are barely in each other’s presence, intellectually and spiritually, even if they are gliding along the same campus path or breathing the air of the same seminar room. The risk of encountering another person can be dismissed quite easily from a position of relative ease and power — one need only never quite hear the spark of particularity in the words or read it on the face or in the tone. Never hearing the particularity of another’s speech, we are never influenced, we are untouched. As a result, there are words that might have enriched our deliberations we will never use, anecdotes that might have instructed us that we will never ponder, and questions we will never ask that might have extended the horizon before us.

Curiously, though, universities are very often models of generic speech, and you could drop many of the conversations that take place on one campus down onto another campus hundreds of miles away and not miss a beat, for a good deal of the work we do on campuses has to do with passing on languages rather than learning the local dialect. Very often a sociologist or an English professor spends days or weeks saying little or even nothing that has been shaped around the particulars of region or student body. The “embodied differences” don’t get a chance to impinge upon the rhetorics of our fields, usually. Students come to us to be acculturated, we think, and not the reverse. At our worst, we don’t even learn their names.

But for Kuusisto, as for Gadamer, differences are generative of meaning, or can be. Kuusisto says that “embodied differences are the source of considerable power in language and in self-awareness, the two things university instructors are most often hoping to foster, at least in those courses where reading and writing are paramount.” It is respectful to seek common ground and to appreciate difference, too. We grow smarter when we do.

Schools, however, don’t always manage it. In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin talked about a labyrinth of attitudes that keeps people from mastering or even acknowledging the complexity of their lives. Institutions are at least as good as individuals in this brand of failure. A passage from another Baldwin essay hints at the psychological barriers to understanding that accompany embodied differences, thanks to the workings of culture:

Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable. (“Fifth Avenue, Uptown”)

And so the angel has no head because the meanings of our embodied differences, which Kuusisto rightly calls “the nerve of our nation’s body politic,” are obscured and silenced when they challenge us to find their bounty.

PS. In the memoir and in the occasional blog post, there is also the fabulous image of the dog — the creature of optimism and hope that teaches the person rather than merely serving him. That’s why there must be serious training of the person before receiving a guide dog — there is much unlearning to do before the person can be ready to learn with and from another being.