Same Room, Different Century

A week ago Sunday, I followed a link posted at The Blogora that pointed to a 2007 New Yorker article, “The Interpreter.” The article lays plain the research and travels of Dan Everett, a linguistics professor at Illinois State, who has dedicated most of his career to discerning patterns in a language spoken by an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã. Honestly, as I followed the link, I didn’t expect to read the whole thing, but after a couple of paragraphs, I was in the article’s clutches. Rather than quit it, I pressed on, figuring it fit in nicely enough with the ideal-ambition of keeping alive eclectic reading habits as a beginning assistant professor.

The article does a nice job of introducing, albeit with great simplification, Everett’s research and setting it in relation to Chomsky’s propositions about universal grammar. Pirahã language practices are, according to the article, a “severe counterexample” to Chomsky’s famous theory. I won’t attempt a full summary of the article here. Instead, I want to pick up just one line from the essay–a line that has grown louder and louder in my head this week since I read it. It comes up late in the essay, in a scene where Tecumsah Fitch, another linguist, visits Everett in the Amazon to corroborate his claims about the absence of recursion in the Pirahã language. Fitch ends up fumbling with computer equipment. The equipment acts up due to high humidity; Fitch leaves the lab-tent to attempt repairs, while Everett remains with the reporter and a young Pirahã man.

At this moment, according to the article, Everett says, “‘But the problem here is not cognitive; it’s cultural.’ He gestured toward the Pirahã man at the table. ‘Just because we’re sitting in the same room doesn’t mean we’re sitting in the same century.'”

Same room, different century. For Everett, this identifies a methodological quandary: how to traverse discordant temporalities in a culture’s language development, especially in light of popular, contemporary language theories. But the room-century line is suggestive of much more, even if it only points out the possibility of two people occupying common time-space when they are not in the same century. I find it to be a rich paradox, perhaps more for how well it generalizes to everyday encounters concerning technology. I mean, have you ever had a technology-focused experience in which you thought, “which century are we”?

I suppose that sounds judgmental. I don’t mean it quite that way. Let me try again. Maybe it would help to revive, for these purposes, Alfred Korzybski’s peculiar system of time-stamping words (I’m remembering that something like this comes up in Nicotra’s RSQ article on Burke and the General Semantics movement, but my copy is at the office right now, so…remembering will have to do). Including the date in a superscript annotation offers us a different handle on a term’s temporal shifts, helping us locate its valences in time. I have no idea if this impression of time-stamping aligns with its function for General Semantics; no idea at all. But it does help me think through the same room, different century problem. By reviving time-stamp markups, that is, we could more readily differentiate computers1995 from computers2010, the Internet1998 from the internet2006, or composition1985 from composition2009, or rhetoric1965 from rhetoric2012. May be nothing more than a passing curiosity, a late winter thought experiment. And I doubt it would be much good in conversation: too fumbly, too parenthetical. But I can think of a handful of occasions, such as, say, in a course syllabus, when it would help position everyone in the same year to differentiate writingthesedays from writingassumedtobeeternal. Some day I2050 hope to look more deeply into time-annotation or time-binding (?) for the General Semanticists than I have here.


Arrived home from MLA via Detroit on Thursday. Since I’ve surrendered almost three full days to gluttonous lazies: home-made fried chicken, NFL playoffs, afternoon naps, a nightly Wolavers’ oatmeal stout, a breeze through Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and darn near nothing else.

Today I can feel the low, resistant grind of changing gears–from no gear to anything-chug productive. Spring syllabus is due tomorrow–or Wednesday, depending on who you ask (this would be easier if I didn’t read *all* of my email). I’m penciled in for a section of WRT205: Critical Research and Writing, a course that more or less picks a topic (invention by topoi) and then gets on with research a la “critical inquiry”, which I take to mean “examined” or “deliberate” inquiry: self-reflective inquiring.

Did I mention that it’s an online class? I still thinking about whether to heave Blackboard into the weeds (where it belongs?): bypass it altogether and instead channel all of our encounters through a wiki-blog-delicious-youtube mash-up. The former is, if you can stand it, a cinch; the latter is far more interesting and also more work coming at a time when, well, there is already plenty enough work. Tonight, I can’t decide. Tomorrow I’ll flip a coin. But if the coin comes up “Blackboard,” that just might be enough to jolt me back over to the mash-ups.

The course itself–as planned–is a dance with pop culture and media valuation. We’ll read Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, contemplate his handling of the good/bad reversal, and think/write/talk about his book–what he calls “an old-fashioned work of persuasion” in the first sentence–as a dissoi logoi, or strengthening of the (presumed to be) weaker position.

In keeping with program-level expectations for the course, the first unit will be something of a reading of Johnson and his work with sources and evidence. It’s a sort of parlor inventory with a hermeneutic slant, viz. who’s saying what, what it means, and so on. The second unit in the course usually involves some sort of annotated bibliography, but I’m thinking along the lines of a collection/annotation aspect (rel. Sirc’s “box-logic”) that might involve a playlist/compilation in YouTube or Seeqpod. Will put that alongside a more recognizable batch of article/chapter annotations and ask students to speculate about their complementarity. Unit Three is that well-run horse, the sustained research project, 10-12 pp. By that time, I’d like to have the dissoi logoi well-enough in hand that students will be developing arguments rel. to popular culture that complicate status quo views of brain-rotting media. And the fourth, final piece of the course will be some kind of semester-long foray into “serially immersive” new media writing: blogging, annotated social bookmarking, etc. The point here: to again insist on the generative, associative collusion between immersive new media writing and its (still) eventful counterparts in the academy. It’s an online course: this is the both-and set up to bridge the institutionally recognizable (and desired) and peppy, alt-logic digitality.

Lobotomap 2

The Yesterblog at the right reminded me that I’d put together one of these three years ago, after lifting the idea from here. And since today’s been one of the those mid-fall brain-stew Fridays, using the last few neuronal pulses that remain after this week, I thought why not conjure up another brain map, even declare the lobotomap a triennial EWM tradition. Until 2011….

Lobotome 2

Katamari Walking

Before Saturday night, I’d never played
Katamari Damacy

and again in
I read about the princely roller pushing the tacky (magnetic?)
ball through the game’s byways, gaining in things, some strategic, many
accidental. All of them counted, catalogued. They’re persistent in my own
Katamari-like memory, the projects I mention, their framing of Katamari Damacy
as an installment of the database logic implicit in much digital writing. Like
toaster ovens placed enigmatically in the middle of the street (what’s that
doing there?
), Katamari logics have joined the clump that is my plan for
WRT302 this fall, too.

Speaking of stickiness (or glue), I’ve been walking
Y. most days
lately. Mornings. We’ve jogged, too, but whether or not I’m jogging,
he walks, mocking me and my slow, laborious pace. Puppies are voracious
collectors; Y., particularly so. He aggregates the street, its detritus,
its unseen flavors. Leeches miscellany: cig. butts, sticks, wilderberries,
leaves, wrappers, styrofoam bits, and so on. This gets at the deep tension in
our relationship (Dr. Phil, Y. takes into his mouth every tiny speck of crap and
debris in reach!). He’s learning "drop." It’s a sweeter
lesson since he’s come to understand that I’m not afraid to dig my fingers into
the dark depths of his kibble-pipe to retrieve the salivascraps rather than have
him ingest them for good. Back to the point of what I was getting at: Y.
is a collector.

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