The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories:
We need discovery, as Diane said above, we all feel irrepressable curiosity, and it' s probably killed a lot of people, but it's discovered fire too. On the other side of things is trust. We need trust to have something solid to place our feet on; children need to trust that their parents love them and will care for them, adults need to trust that the world has some echo of that love and care, which they often find in religion. We all need to trust that the chairs we're sitting in will probably continue to support our weight and the Earth is unlikely to be swallowed by fire in our lifetimes.
This, however, is where they meet. Trust and discovery may be facing in different directions, but either they start and the same point or they circle around to hit the same point eventually. They're based on a need for stability, which can come from blind trust that the world will not end and we'll be okay if it does, or can come from understanding how the world works and thus how it will end and when. So these apparently radically opposed thought patterns in the end come from one undeniable drive, and the only further question is which route, or what balance of the two, we will choose.
As my parents always told me and my brothers growing up: "Indecision is a decision".
I think this was very powerful for me because it made everything that I did an act of my own will. This, similarly, applies to the future. I do not just "choose to", I also "choose not to." In lots of the class discussions, people talked of Free will as if it was Infinite will: i.e., the ability to choose to do WHATEVER you want, anything is in the realm of possibility. But I think that I have free will because I have the opportunity to choose between options, however limited they may be.
the Word is a tremendous responsibility!!!
how nice to welcome ourselves back to Bryn Mawr and wake up from the roadside nap (?) that was spring break, with a story in a snow storm this afternoon. Am of course interested in hearing the rest of those comments which lay behind your raised hands towards the end of today's session--as well as your further thoughts/reactions to Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory. How does literature and literary theory (as he explains it/as you understand it now) "fit" with or diverge from what you know of biological evolution? What role does (can?) it play in in the evolving story of our lives?
ps some jots of not so relevant melville, just hope for some company in appreciating this greatness; melville: "yes, there is death in the business of whaling - a speechless quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance." ahhhh.....
also, thought today about how we question whether anything is NEW or if everything is JUST a reshuffling of already present objects. and i'd argue that CREATION is not sublime, rather the beauty lies in the REORGANIZATION, the constant shuffle of our lives.
so writers cannot CREATE anything new, the dictionary is bound and sent to press, but the genious of the writer lies in her ability to reshuffle words.
((obviously i am making up for the posting deprevation over break. it was a nice rest stop, but now that we're rested the only way to make up for lost time is to speed ahead ... going 90mph.))
At Mary's suggestion, here's everyone's assignment for tomorrow's class: Come prepared to speak (briefly) about your encounter w/ Culler's text. What was added to you by reading it? What was taken away? What puzzles you? What do you find yourself pushing against? What do you know, now, having read his book, and what would you like to understand better?
What do you doubt? What do you believe?
What I really wanted to post was just how much I enjoyed listening to Anne's reading of Dr. Seuss-- I want to be read to again and am feeling very nostalgic although I don't remember Dr. Seuss being a part of what was read to me... or at least not the Cat and The Hat... or The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Perhaps Green Eggs and Ham. It was just so lovely to listen to this type of story. What I would have liked though was if the pinkness on the snow could have remained... But that would go against a cultural view... Cleaning up mess is good... one must clean up the mess... I wish that all of the little cats could have found something beautiful in the pink snow... Kids are taught that certain things are bad, (mess being one of them) when entropy is an inevitable process and so much of life is messy. There is so much uncertainty in life... Books could really help kids get used to this at an earlier age. But then one wouldn't want them to start coloring over the walls or anything like that. I always used to like going to my Aunt's apartment when I was little because it was so messy and there were art materials and sculptures and painting and things from the curb everywhere... And there was something about it which seemed forbidden. Being there was like being in a magical world detached from everything that was acceptable. She had a mattress on the floor at the time too instead of a bed and when I slept over there I thought it was just the greatest privledge ever to be able to sleep on a matress on the floor. In my house, everything had to be in its proper place, art projects were confined to specific times and locations... I had a play room... I think it's better if the world as a whole is a playroom for children (by children I think I mean every age). But again, it's not a cultural norm. See you all tomorrow :-)
Orah quoted from Melville:
"Yes, there is death in the business of whaling - a speechless quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance."
I started by putting in the word 'death' in the OED Online:
1. The first is the most obvious way of understanding this word:
"The act or fact of dying; the end of life..."
2. The second made me wonder if it was an expression of isolation:
"The loss or want of spiritual life..."
3. The third made me wonder about his physical situation:
"Loss or deprivation of civil life; the fact or state of being cut off from society, or from certain rights and privileges, as by banishment, imprisonment for life, etc."
4. The fourth made me think about whose perspective this was from:
"Bloodshed, slaughter, murder..."
There are many many more, but these are the ones I thought to play with. I think that there is a certain truth in what Orah said, the more words, the more limitations on meanings. But even within these limitations, I want to point out that there are a plethora of meanings out there. Not just the ones we can find in the OED but the ones that speak to and provide meaning in each of us, in each distinct way.
Also, when Culler asks what is literature, he gives the example of pulling a line out of a recipe book:
"Stir vigorously and allow to sit five minutes."
Then he went on to explain that much of literature is the context it is placed in but the problem with that is that there is always a wider and wider context...yadayada, you know what I'm referring to. This reminded me of an essay by Roland Barthes called "The Rhetoric of the Image." The questions he is trying to answer through this essay are: "How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond."
He discusses the messages transmitted to a shopper (who I think of as a reader!!) while scanning the labels on packages of a 'Panzani' advertisement- Seems like marinara sauce in a can. The picture on the label is of some packets of pasta, a tin, some tomatoes, onions, peppers, a mushroom all emerging from a half open string shopping bag.
Barthes describes the first message the shopper receives as the linguistic message that is transmitted through the text on the actual label. The sauce, called 'Panzini' connotes something Italian. Then he goes on to the more coded messages present in the image...messages we can only read because they are assumptions that society makes. This makes me think about the context about which Culler spoke. To quote a fantastic description of this act of reading from Barthes:
"This particularity can be seen again at the level of the knowledge invested in the reading of the message; in order to 'read' this level of the image, all that is needed is the knowledge bound up with our perception." =)
For those who are interested, I quote the passages below:
"Putting aside the linguistic message, we are left with the pure image...This image straightaway produces a series of discontinuous signs...the idea that what we have in the scene represented is a return from the market. A signified which itself implies two euphoric values: that of the freshness of the products and that of the essentially domestic preparation for which they are destined. It's signifier is the half-open bag which lets the provisions spill out over the table, 'unpacked'. To read this first sign requires only a knowledge which is in some sort implanted as part of the habits of a very widespread culture where 'shopping around for oneself' is opposed to the hasty stocking up (preserved, refrigerators) of a more mechanical civilization. A second sign is more or less equally evident; its signifier is the bringing together of the tomato, the pepper and the tricoloured hues (yellow, green, red) of the poster; its signified is Italy or rather Italianicity. This sign stands in a relation of redundancy with the connoted sign of the linguistic message (the Italian association with the name Panzini) and the knowledge it draws upon is already more particular; it is a specifically 'French' knowledge (an Italian would barely perceive the connotation of the name, no more than he would the Italianicity of tomato and pepper), based on a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes. Continuing to explore the image, there is no difficulty in discovering at least two other signs: in the first, the serried collection of different objects transmits the idea of a total culinary service, on the one hand as though Panzini furnished everything necessary for a carefully balanced dish and on the other as though the concentrate in the tin were equivalent to the natural produce surrounding it; in the other sign, the composition of the image, evoking the memory of innumerable alimentary paintings, sends us to an aesthetic signified: the 'nature morte' or; as it is better expressed in other languages, the 'still life'; the knowledge on which this sign depends is heavily cultural [yayyyyy Barthes, I love this guy!!!]. It may be suggested that, in addition to these four signs, there is a further information pointer, that which tells us that this is an advertisement and which arises from both the place of the image in the magazine and from the emphasis of the label...
"Thus there are four signs for this image and we will assume that they form a coherent whole, require a generally cultural knowledge , and refer back to signifieds each of which is global (for example, Italianicity), imbued with euphoric values..."
Ok, now would be a good time to put this over-worked mind to rest and go-to-bed. 4 hours seems like verrry little suddenly!! Goodnight...
Moby-Dick is alot like Heart of Darkness in that it is so much more than a story about the sea. Both are cultural comments with deep philosophical undertones that show up every few pages or so in dense, cryptic packages of language. While I don't love most of the book I keep reading to get to these extremely meaningful observations that seem to fit some tiny place in my heart.
The general idea, relevant to thinking about biologial evolution as well as cultural evolution as well as agency/free will is that "infinite" is not the same thing as "unbounded". There are an infinite number of points (intemdiate values) between 0 and 1 but that infinity is "bounded", ie there are points between 1 and 2 that are not included in the infinity of points between 0 and 1. In the obscure paper I called this situation of infinite but limited possibility "bounded variance". It is also, I said then, a property of words/concepts/categories, as for example "tree". There are an infinite number of different things meant by the word "tree", but there are also things clearly outside that set ("dogs", "cats", etc).
In the context of biological evolution, I would argue that the future of any given kind of organism is appropriately characterized as a situation of "bounded variance". An elepant has very low (or zero) probability of evolving into an ostrich, but there are nonethless an infinite array of things it might evolve into. I suspect the same holds for cultural evolution, what exists at any one time sets some limits on future developments but leaves nonethelss an infinite array of different futures within those limits. And, ta da, the same seems likely to me to be the case for personal agency/free will. Being an NBA basketball player was almost certainly outside the infinite set of things I could have become as a kid. Or at the very least, outside the set of relatively easily reachable things.
The "at the very least" may be the hook to personal agency/free will as "skybook". I suppose I might, if I had been able/willing to commit myself to it, have tried to change the social category "NBA basketball player" in such a way as to make it accessible to me. And had I succeeded in doing that, I would, as a personal agent, have changed the "rules of the game". And THAT, I think I would argue, would be equivalent to actually bringing something new into the world, by "intent" rather than by cranes and evolution.
Would that have been good or bad? For me? For other people? Maybe THAT's where one has to stop and remember that "the Word is a tremendous responsibility".
but, i do.
reminds me of the kundera i quoted to you a while back.
about the heaviness of life verses the lightness of life. and though it hurts, i think i'd rather life to be unbearably heavy rather than unbearbaly light. i want meaning .... i don't want to dissipate ... i want to matter .... and so i write ... and crucify myself to my own words ....
that's it for now ...have a great weekend.
ps clarification from dr. rabeeya: the mistranslation he was talking about was when people equate the greek word Logos (at the begining of John) with the hebrew word Amar or Milah (speak, word) which is found at the begining of genesis. amar/milah does not imply an entity along side God, but rather is really just a word ... rabeeya was saying that when it is a mistranslation to say that The Word of John can be found here in genesis .........
pps was very interesting to think today about how we are OBLIGATED to tell our own stories to stop harmful stories from being told ... and i stand by my example of the US in WW2 ... yes, the US gave money to the allies, but it was cop out money ... money so we wouldn't have to give the help that was really really desperatly needed to stop the genocide. and FDR DID know what was going on over there ... he knew and chose not to do anything ... bad choice, buddy.
ppps it's very hard for me to conceive the infinity of possibilities WITHIN a context. humm..... in our consumer culture we are told that we have a infinite amount of possibilities for which to chose ... we are offered an infinite amount of choices of jeans and shirts and coffee and beer and cars ... but the context of consumerism seems so limiting .....we're told in society that we can be anything that we want to be, we have free will, the ability to chose in life, but that ability to chose is only within a context, and we cannot chose anything outside that context.
i still think that our free will is limited.
that math equation seems so so counter-intuitive.
Our section, too, talked about "bounded variance," but w/ reference to the infinite-but-limited set that is "literature" (thinking about all that might be contained/all that might be excluded in that category). Reading Paul's comment, I realize that Kat had already described for us the way in which this concept is also useful in helping us to understand free will: we cannot choose "anything in the realm of possibility," but we do always "have the opportunity to choose between options." Thank you Kat, thank you, Paul.
In our group's attempts to define what literature (and literary theory) is, I was perhaps most struck by Emily's offering: "an event" you can "lose yourself in" (she didn't say this, but I will: it is an event of the soul). I told my group that I am moved by literature, and moved to be a literary critic because I want to understand what it is that moves me. As I also told them, I jumped Al Albano, @ last Tuesday night's Beauty symposium, for "cheating," by creating two categories of "beauty": those things that moved him-he-didn't-know-or-care-why, and those things (like a mathematical theorem) that have a fine explanatory power. I wanted the first category (for me, in this context: literature) to be illuminated by the second (in this context: literary theory).
In the Beauty forum, Jan Trembley (who edits the Alumnae Bulletin, and has long kept me good company in thinking through such questions) asked whether Al's categories A and B might be described in Kierkegaardian fashion as "aethetics" and "ethics"-- which are then synthesized into a "religious mode: living out a faith which derives its power from the capacity to take a chance on what can't be verified by rational means." Jan's query put me in mind, in turn, of a conversation Paul which conducted, several summers ago, w/ Jeanne-Rachel Solomon--which I joined in and said (anticipating the space we are now occupying):
while the experiential unconscious work of religious life can nurture a sense of interconnection, the self-reflective conscious work of academics accentuates a sense of separation between the self and the world it observes...the insistence on our capacity to "reflect on/conceive the possibility of other than what is"...will exacerbate the sense that all of us, as knowers and seekers, are separate from life's larger patterns.
If humans are naturally reflective, then academics are just professionalizing and systemizing what all of us do anyway: thinking about what is happening to us....in doing so we repeatedly intervene in and interrupt the more assured sense of interconnection that can emerge in ...religious explorations ....might [there] not be ways to both "experience unconsciously" and "reflect consciously" on that experience, without reinforcing the pronounced sense of division, separation and abandonment ...? Does an insistence on the "distinctive Such-ness" of each of us prevent us from seeing our interdependence? Or is it rather precisely that distinctiveness which makes us valuable to, and so interdependent on, one another?
The image that brought me to confront this question was Paul's description of the meteorite which he wears as a reminder that "all life on earth is inextricably interconnected with entities and events elsewhere in the universe....An appreciation of the importance of the relational...." What struck me most about this talisman of "interconnection," of course, was its cataclysmic quality: when a meteor and the earth come together, the juxtaposition is inevitably a violent one. But it is also ...inevitably a productive one, because in the process of destruction, space is created for new connections to emerge.
In this early-morning moment, that's my current definition of literature: a cataclysmic event, one that disrupts what we think we so-settle-edly-know... and literary theory helps us understand how to pick through the rubble, find it beautiful, make it new.
Whew. Thanks all.
On a lighter note, following Elizabeth C's observation, "I think it's better if the world as a whole is a playroom for children (by children I think I mean every age)" see both Serendip's Playground and Playgrounds and Classrooms, a piece written by Brooke Lowder in one of my classes a few semesters ago.
Yesterday's class was a bit odd—I gotta say. I did not make it across the bridge (sploosh) from our free-form conversation about writers' responsibilities or what we should/should not (I hate the word 'should') allow to tell, to Culler. But I am curious—what was the connection?
Literary theory still leaves me cold. Theory is for readers, not for writers. How many readers ever encounter the concept of theory? Are writers concerned? I question the motives of a body of scholars whose purpose seems to have been to apply an arbitrary structure to what others write—and how a reader should engage with "literature." So many of the important "structuralists" sprang forth concurrently during the sixties, which was a time of free-wheeling criticism and questioning about academia, both science and the humanities... I can't shake the feeling that theory arose as a knee-jerk reaction—a justification of sorts—from the humanities side of the house.
Which further tweaks my antennae...during the height of theory development (60's to 80's), culture then was so starkly different from culture now, that I don't see how we can pick up these notions without first asking if they are still relevant.
And I couldn't help but compare Culler to Dennett. It seems to me that each tries to tidy up everything (in their respective spheres) by applying one big Archimedes' Screw: algorithms for selection versus algorithms for interpretation. I am suspicious of slick fixes and grand schemes. Aren't you?
If anyone is interested in more (easy reading) about theory, Terry Eagleton's book "After Theory" is super. He sets up the context for context. Have a whale of a weekend '-)
this book strikes me as intensly homoerotic. i find it most apparent in the description of the narrator sleeping beside his friend (there is that descriptive paragraph about their legs overlapping and intertwining and the acknowledgement of an intimacy between the two) and when the narrator talks about sperm (pages 322-333). because these instances in the book seem so insistent i find myself transferring that same eroticism to other parts of the book that might not otherwise seem sexual. perhaps its just because all of melville's descriptions are so moving that i am misinterperting his general emotional tone as something more. but it seems to me that this is a theme that seeps into every part of the book and which is confirmed by the more obviously sexual references like the ones that i noted above. either way, i'd be glad to hear what anyone else thinks. does anyone know of an analysis of the text that argues my point?
Like Ro suggested, there is much evidence that a curious relationship is thought to have existed between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote to a friend "I liked Melville so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me". Visits were made, letters were exchanged, and even books were dedicated to each other (not surprisingly, Moby Dick is inscribed to Hawthorne), but for reasons that can only be surmised, the pair ceased communication in 1856, only about two years after they had met (if I remember correctly). Highly distraught from this failed relationship, it can be argued that Melville turned to his fiction the question of how men might form lasting emotional relationships with each other.
Ishmael has his first intimate moment with Queequeg at the Spouter's Inn where the two are forced to have to share a bed. At first frightened by his "savage" appearance, Ishmael then notices that Queequeg's "countenance" had "something in it which was by no means disagreeable". Underneath his "unearthly" tattoos, and "hideously marred" face, Ishmael could see traces of a "simple honest heart". Most confidential disclosures between the two took place as they lay next to each other: "Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair" (A Bosom Friend 57).
In terms of evolution it would be interesting to think about why such behavior between men was considered part of society in the nineteenth century, whereas now we have labels: gay, homosexual, male love, etc... Ishmael and Queequeg were never read as lovers until recently. Was Melville intentionally writing about male lovers or are we, the readers of the 21st century, bringing our own meaning/reading to the text? (Personally, I think we are bringing this new reading to the text and that Melville never intended it to be so...of course, who knows, right?)
So here goes...
I was born and raised on the East Coast of Canada. There we learned how to write essays in a very linear style, just like in the State. You were to present a thesis in your paper, and throughout the next 3 - 4 paragraphs, develop your argument FOR this thesis, defending it, expanding it.
Well my senior year of high school I moved to France for a year, and had to adapt to another style of writing essays, very differnt from the previous one. In France we were taught that you shouldn't just have one thesis in your paper, and that you shouldn't be trying to defend just one point of view. They follow the dialectic form of writting ( i think thats how you say it in English..) basically: a thesis, an anti-thesis, and a synthesis, plus intro and conclusion. You try and refute what you are saying and are in a state of constant contradiction (sort of). You are taught to think in a more cyclical fashion rather than the North American linear fashion (the battle between these two forms is still wreaking havoc on me and my grades in university... grr...)
So anyways, what do you all think? I think it has alot to say in terms of the different ideologies of the countries, but in terms of the word and thought, which do you think is "more worth it" (to quote Culler, if I may in this instance)?
Well. hmm. interesting.
Yes, the two approaches to an essay speak volumes about the French affinity for discourse and argument.
As for which is "more worth it," I think that IT DEPENDS. Think of literary form as just another way to constrain a story--sometimes leading to clarity and impact, sometimes not, if you apply the wrong one. The French form of essay (point and counterpoint) makes me think of writing a sonnet (pick whichever style you like), which has a decided 'turn' in its argument before the end. The turn is required as part of the form. OK, there are no "sonnet police" last time I looked around the creative writing department...but still, IT DEPENDS on what you want to tell AND who are your target readers. For me, writing is about the reader.
In the end, though, don't both forms of essay require a conclusion, a singular position? I would hope that how you get there is not so important --whether you go in a straight line or circling around some intermediate arguments--as long as the development of a position is clear and sound.
It is a very interesting question from the point of thinking about bounded variances and what is "allowed" ....maybe versus what is optimal...and who gets to decide.
In class someone said that we have a responsibility as a reader to respond to text-in listening we have responsibility to tell our own stories-and at first, in class, I was slightly dissappointed with myself that I didn't have any criticism of Culler. I found everything that he had to say very insightful. Then I was talking about this with someone out of class, how I almost never respond to text in that, it takes me longer to formulate opinions about the text because I am still inside it. I think dialogue with the text is important, but I don't think that "believing" in the text first is a bad thing. It reminds me of a dialogue we were having at the beginning of the course: Grobstein said he never believed in stories because he always wanted to be open to others, and Orah (I think) said that she found it more useful to believe in all stories. I'm reiterating it badly.
The thing I found most thought-provoking in the forum is what someone said about what is "more worth it"?-linear, more western stories or more cyclic (french?) stories. I think that there is "a bounded infinity" of ways to tell your story, and that it is a shame that our society only values print, and "linearly-told" ones at that. I don't think that the only valid stories are those that, as Ro says, clearly and soundly develop a position. I think academia could benifit by allowing multiple ways to express stories. By limiting the validity of the methods available to tell stories, we are not letting people tell their stories.
I've always found writing style fascinating. I used to think that older books were automatically hard to read because the language and frame of reference had changed so, but I realized that books from as recently as the '50's and '60's just sound different, and it isn't only because of the different social context. So I decided that there was some change over time in the way people word things and string their ideas together. But again, I've realized that old things, like _Moby Dick_, can flow quite well through my mind and I can get the jokes occasionally, whereas I've run into style problems so severe I couldn't finish books written in the 1950's.
I can't tease out exactly what it is, but my brain just seems to process certain writing better than others. There's some age difficulty here, but I can peer through the odd words and see the character's personalities and the humor in the situations they get into, I can read the story. I don't think it's just a good versus bad writing thing, because I've run into many clearly well written books that I just can't wrap my brain around. Does anyone know what I'm talking about?
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