Scrap

Read this morning that Honda has stopped manufacturing the Element. Bummer.

Apparently the targeted market (er, audience imagined) was too niche. Twenty-somethings proved too broke to spring $20,000 for the rinsable-interiored dream-box on wheels. Only, for my tastes–and more importantly, for my body type–there’s something to be said for the head and leg room inside that box: it’s roomy enough for me to drive and ride comfortably. That’s not something I can say for many cars, including most family-sized mini-SUV types. We test-drove CRVs and Liberties and a Ford forgettable-something in 2004, the year we bought the Element, and while all of them had more aero-rounded bodies, they are all designed for drivers 6-2 and under. I would require a contortionist’s flexibility to drive one of them for more than ten minutes. A tight-space contortionist, at that. I mean, I’d have to mush my kneecaps into my chin to fit, if I wanted to push the accelerator pedal with my right foot, that is. I suffer severe claustrophobia at the thought of it. And what else is there? Envoy? Hummer?

Obviously, I’m disappointed. The tall and big-footed life yields regular spatial disappointments, though (e.g., I don’t remember the last time I went into a shoe store and actually shopped other than muttering freakishly, “Bring out your fourteens.”) And anyway, it’s not like we were planning to buy a 2011 Element. But I hope the one we have holds up for another ten years or longer, at which time I will enthusiastically buy your low mileage used 2010 Element.

Scoping Out Classrooms

After this noon’s union meeting, I walked with a colleague to check out classroom space in McKenny Hall, formerly EMU’s student union and a building that has undergone major renovations in recent months. I’ll be teaching ENGL326: Research Writing, in McKenny 100 (shown below). Just nine students were enrolled in the course until, oh, a week ago, and the current roster is up to 18. It caps at 25. McKenny 100 is at first glance a terrific space: great furniture, lighting, and projection equipment; however, if the class fills, some will be sitting snugly: I counted just 18 table spaces (extra chairs are stacked in a corner).

McKenny 100

After I picked up Is. from the Children’s Institute, we went upstairs to check out the classroom in Rackham where I will be teaching back-to-back sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. But the door was locked: no photo. I hear there’s a laptop cart inside. Between now and next Wednesday, the first day of classes, I also need to figure out who keeps the key.

Star Whale

Harnessed beneath the floating future British metropolis, a star whale labored against zero gravity, acting as a gentle, unassuming engine to carry humans toward some uncertain destination. This is a near-spoiler, I suppose, since it gets at the gradually unraveling Smilerpremise of “The Beast Below,” the second Dr. Who episode to air this season– Sat. night on BBC America. For the second consecutive week, I watched, not fully sure whether I would grow bored with Who’s kitschy special effects or impatient with the show’s fantastical excesses. Yet, like the week before (unlike some), I was pleasantly surprised. I thought Episode Two was well done–well enough that I recommend it: an army of creepy fortune-telling machines (think Zoltar Speaks with extreme mood swings: called “Smilers”), a blaring, flickering civics quiz after which participants have the option to forget or protest (mass, self-selected forgetting preserves the Queen’s authority; too much protest dethrones her), and, of course, the city’s hefty, bottom-floor host, a schizophrenic giant merciful toward the children but unkind to adults. Enough.

All the more striking in this episode was the unmistakable family resemblance between the star whale and the withering, abused avanc in Mieville’s The Scar, that massive underwater creature yoked to Armada as their floating conglomeration of warped hulls and things drifted toward the water’s edge.

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.

Chamber of Absences

I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)

"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on
foot.

I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
again
) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).

About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?

Certeau’s Sieve-order

Lately I’ve been puzzling over de Certeau’s theorization of maps and what they risk
obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation
of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once
experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan–seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering
distantly above the city’s "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the
pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird’s-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic
drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that
carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it
"carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis,
the city appears different–further away. But in another sense, the urban
observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at
the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you
to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened
projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this
["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses,
drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors
stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from
those viewpoints at which the "world’s debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors"
(presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is
concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories
diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between
them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming
private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or
individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and,
gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the
substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild
of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one
(i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling:
"The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It
exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able
to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in
the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection–and even the written account–also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data
(mined from texts or activities) into visual models–projections in which we can
apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the
"ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven’t decided
yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the
walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled),
but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about
whether it is even necessary).