Overlooking

I thought of a dream related by Leibniz, in which he found himself at a great height overlooking the world–with provinces, towns, lakes, fields, villages, hamlets, all spread beneath him. If he wished to see a single person–a peasant tilling, an old woman washing clothes–he had only to direct and concentrate his gaze: “I needed no telescope except my attention.”

Oliver Sacks, “Bull on a Mountain,” from A Leg to Stand On

Factory Hyperadequated

I attended EMU’s season-opening football game against Morgan State on Saturday evening. Along with a colleague, I made my way through the ticket line, paid $15 for a general admission pass, and found seats on the aluminum benches on the south end of Rynearson Stadium well enough before kick-off to see some of the pre-game activities. Through a summer rebranding effort, which included the addition of gray astroturf (er, synthetic grass substitute), Rynearson now doubles as The Factory, a designation promoted publicly by the program’s new head coach. I was seated at the most distant end of The Factory away from where our football players made their entrance onto the field, an entrance I did not notice as special or distinctive at the time, but one that later made its (justifiable, embarrassing) rounds because of a peculiar wall-buster of an idea that involved several players wielding real sledge hammers as they attempted to knock over a loosely stacked wall of cinder blocks. The rally-cry might have been something like, “Some of us will move brick walls together.”

Have a look for yourself.

Some have characterized the wall smash theatrics as a dim stunt, others as a silly but forgivable mishap. I agree that it could have been better. Foam bricks, if we must.

The game itself played out as an even match. EMU took a slight lead into a fourth quarter lightning and ominous weather suspension. After an hour, the suspension lifted, and the game played out as a victory for the Eagles by the same score, 31-28.

Yet, in its aftermath, observing as I have some of the strained exchanges about the wall smash episode, the status of the program, attitudes toward extravagances in what are felt elsewhere around campus to be lean times, I remain stuck on The Factory and the labor metaphor it calls, stuck because it has been summoned in haste and perhaps a bit too strenuously.

True, EMU sits in so-called automation alley; factories (many closed, left behind) are thick across the area landscape. And a fantastic, idealistic notion of factories does–for some, I guess–conjure up images of coordinated human-machine brilliance, hard work, sweat, pride, toughness, overtime pay, and camaraderie. Else: chronic fatigue, robot workers, union busting, environmental hazards, sore hands and backs, funny smelling air, indoor lighting, machinic-ambient noises, and so on. This is all just to acknowledge that factories are not so easily envisioned in a warm, soft pillow of feel-good enthusiasm. Factories don’t rally for me much sense of a bright and promising future; instead, I think of my neighbor in college who could barely pay bills while making seats for Ford on third shift. And as such, coupled with the gray turf, The Factory is a marketing frame that becomes memorable, though not always favorably memorable.

I don’t mean to take pot-shots on the campaign. Not at all. But I do think it is setting up a fascinating case of metaphor and its limits. I.A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric wrote about dead metaphors, and he used adequate as a verb to pinpoint the metaphor’s all-full capacity to excite the interpretive leap from one familiar frame (e.g., football stadium) to another whose pairing would amplify the significance of the first (e.g., factory). That amplification reaches its limits when two become one (i.e., when stadium and factory align). Richards says that the metaphor, once adequated, is dead. It stops exciting those leaps and instead grows weary, tiresome, banal. Wan metaphor. Dead metaphor.

Dead metaphors can re-awaken. And I don’t think it’s quite right to say that The Factory is a dead metaphor. Not yet. But adequation might be useful in helping us grasp what’s going on with our football program’s attention-hungry campaign. For instance, I lost count of how many times the work whistles blew–whoo!–during Saturday’s game, not because they were infrequent but because they were torturously too many, too many for my taste, anyway. Somebody would make a play, and the stadium would ring (chirp? bellow? cry out?) with a couple of toots of a work whistle. This along with the gray turf and along with the wall smash constitutes a tropical hybrid between metaphor and hyperbole–such an effortful blast that the metaphor has gone from invoked to something like hyperadequated since June 19 when The Factory was first announced. By hyperadequated, I mean that the metaphor is extra dead, groping zombie-like and unselfaware for attention that risks making reasonable people–prospective fans–turn away, cover their ears. Maybe this is what becomes of metaphor when it is grandstanding, straining so hard to take hold that any purported significance is eclipsed by its trying too hard to take hold and to circulate.

Size 8

Nestleed Among the Candy Bars

I know the candy and checkout lane knick knacks are positioned by big box analysts and managers to encourage spontaneous purchases. “I didn’t intend to buy a Milky Way and a root beer, but they were right there. Practically jumped into my cart.” However, here is a case where shoes found some host who ushered them into this primo location. Size 8. Now, in shoe stores, socks and shoe laces crowd the checkout area. But what kind of store–maybe a sock store?–would feature shoes in the checkout lane?

Inventorying Trees

Nick Paumgarten’s short article in the January 31 New Yorker reports on a census of Central Park’s trees undertaken by Edward Barnard, a “retired book editor,” and Ken Chaya, a graphic designer. Together they inventoried and mapped more than 19,000 trees, several of which they consider Very Important Trees (VITs) now having completed the project. VITs stand apart from the forest; they amount to the distinctive and curious exceptions worthy of noticing, touring on foot (binoculars in hand), and pausing to dwell upon. About the map, Paumgarten writes,

In December, they published their map. It’s five feet tall. It has nineteen thousand six hundred and thirty trees on it, about eighty per cent of the Park’s estimated twenty-four thousand trees, all of them identifiable according to a leaf-shape key. It is a beautiful and meticulous artifact, as full of captivating detail as the M.T.A.’s new subway map is devoid of it.

Trees stand up especially well to this map-treatment, since they are uniquely rooted and living. I read this brief article with an interest in what generalizes from these methods, from this project. City-dwellers, particularly NYC-dwellers, might be more fascinated with trees than we who find them abundantly surrounding us in more open Midwestern spaces. Yet, this also means for Midwesterners that we risk resting without noticing them in their seeming ubiquity.

To generalize from Barnard and Chaya’s impressively geeky inventorying, then, what becomes possible out of this for a course like Writing Ypsilanti? Map the campus’s trees? Map a local park’s trees (e.g., Frog Island, Prospect, Normal, Candy Cane)? In tentatively posing this, I am thinking, maybe not. Nothing here. Then again, I think of Denis Wood’s public utility map and jack-o-lantern map, and something here blends inventively into other noticings: Attending to trees that grow and change almost invisibly, what else might we accidentally find? Possibly a related tree-inventorying experiment could function as a heuristic then for yet other object-oriented census maps, which, like Barnard and Chaya’s project, might change our manner of dwelling or our routes simply by resetting those fields of attention that have gone stagnant.

A Condition

A letter came home from Ph.’s school beginning, “Dear Nottingham Seniors and Families.” In it, a list of reminders, three bulleted items, and the third one is this:

Please beware of “senioritis”. Senioritis is a condition that happens to good kids in the spring semester of their senior year. It is contagious and the symptoms are not sometimes obvious at first. Students with senioritis are not focused, demonstrate a sudden lack of interest, and they find it difficult to complete and follow through regarding simple tasks. Senioritis will pass but the consequences may be devastating, i.e. not graduating, not being accepted in your school of choice, etc.

Were I not myself “find[ing] it difficult to complete and follow through regarding simple tasks,” the next part of this blog entry was going to be a snarky blow-by-blow analysis noting how the senioritis bullet appears next to clip art of a stethoscope and doctor’s bag. It was going to have a witty joke about how nobody is using doctor’s bags or medical instruments these days to diagnose the affliction and also something about what a damnable shame it is that the most devastating consequences from this “sudden lack of interest” are centered on the student and only the student insofar as it may keep you from your school of choice, or worse, from graduating altogether.

Anyway, beware of this and other stuff and such.

Moving Meditation

I was out of town and more or less offline late last week when the
July/August Atlantic Monthly hit newsstands with its front cover blazing
the title of Nicholas Carr’s
article, "Is Google
Making Us Stoopid?" (the "Stoopid" is much sexier on the actual cover than it is
here because the letters are done colorfully and in the Google font).
Jeff and

Alex
posted thoughtful responses, and I am sure there will be more.

Carr’s article, if you have not read it yet, hops along like Level 1 on
Frogger (which, coincidentally, was released in 1981): without much exertion,
the argument leaps from personal anecdote to the role of media in shaping
cognition to the insidious effects of too much easy access to information via
Google: drumroll…

"[A]s we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world,
it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence" (63).

Carr welcomes skeptics but also fends off all-out dismissals of his deep
wariness of the changes he has experienced first-hand. He begins the article
with his own reasons for believing this "flattening" to be endemic and imminent
for Google users: 1.) he is more and more easily distracted in his own attempts
to read anything longer than a couple of pages and 2.) what was once
pain-staking research is now available to him almost instantaneously. With a
simple search, he can quickly summon great heaps of material on [enter search
terms]: "And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for
concentration and contemplation" (57).

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