You got your math in my poetics!
You got your poetics in my math!
Listening to a Cognition and Poetics Symposium
last year, I recognized a tool both rigorous and flexible enough to help me with my writing. Since then I’ve been trying to learn all I can about cognitive poetics
, so that I can apply these concepts and techniques to my fiction.
The focus of my interest is language (poetics, linguistics, rhetoric, etc.) but I’m also reading Where Mathematics Comes From by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez. The potential to connect seemingly disparate disciplines, such as literature and mathematics, is one aspect of cognitive theory that intrigues me.
For example, I have been trying to correlate some of Lakoff’s mathematical analysis with the literary analysis of conceptual metaphor in Elizabeth Bradburn’s essay “Mind on the Move” from The Emergence of Mind.
First, the mathematical (don’t be scared, there won’t be a test):
Lakoff identifies two types of metaphors utilized in mathematics. Grounding Metaphors are closely associated with embodied activities and are obvious to most people, once you think about it.
|measuring distance with sticks
The second type, Linking Metaphors, are necessary for complex math beyond arithmetic. Linking Metaphors conceptualize one domain of mathematics in terms of another domain. The Unit Circle is a mathematical concept that requires a Linking Metaphor between geometry and coordinate algebra. Linking Metaphors are one or more steps removed from embodied activity and require some education to be understood. The Unit Circle only makes sense if you understand Euclidean geometry and the Cartesian coordinate system.
|Euclidian plane, Center, Radius
||Cartesian plane, Origin, Distance 1 from Origin
These are the basic concepts Lakoff and Nunez use to analyze mathematics as an embodied human endeavor.
Now for the literary (also an embodied human endeavor):
Bradburn argues that the working out of metaphorical representations of consciousness by 17th century writers engendered the novelistic form as it emerged in the 18th century. She uses conceptual metaphors in the same way that Lakoff does, not merely as literary devices but as cognitive devices to “indicate how thought itself is intrinsically metaphorical.”
The first level of metaphor is the literary metaphor. Bradburn gives an example from Paradise Lost:
“seest thou what rage / Transports our adversaries”
The word “transport” is literal but also metaphorical. Like the Grounding Metaphors Lakoff and Nunez use in their mathematical analysis, the conceptual metaphor MENTAL STATES ARE LOCATIONS is obvious once it has been pointed out. The “calling attention to or formalizing the presence of metaphor in thought and language” is the aesthetic effect of the literary metaphor.
Bradburn also considers another level of conceptual metaphor that shapes narrative plot. John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, can be read as a physical journey and as spiritual progression. “Each level is self-coherent; they have the same morphology, but they do not mix.”
|Allegory – Pilgrim’s Progress
|mind or soul
||Christian (the character)
|despair, tempation, faith, shame, etc.
||locations, objects, and characters
The richness of the allegory is the same richness of the Unit Circle; it is the play between different levels of conceptual metaphor. Readers of Pilgrim’s Progress must be educated in both the domain of spiritual writing and the domain of travel narratives to understand and appreciate the Linking Metaphor that connects them.
A mathematical analysis lends itself to precise categorization, and a literary analysis must be more subtle; math seeks precision in a way literature should not because the scope of literature is not limited the way math’s is. There can be no determinate matching between domains, especially for allegory according to Paul de Man, or meaning would be exhausted. In mathematical terminology, a literary text is not necessarily onto or one-to-one.
Bradburn elaborates on her reading to identify points of conflict between the allegorical level and the physical level. For example, the character Shame causes some consternation between Christian and Faith, not only in the aspersion Shame has for religion, but also in that Shame is both an “external provocateur” and “internal feeling”.
This method of analysis stays focused on the text but does not ignore that reading is done by people with minds. When I am writing, I forge pathways in my own stories by reading and revising. Recognizing domains that pervade my writing, I can find the freedom to play between them.
The title of this year’s spring symposium at Naropa was “Territory”, and these are my notes and thoughts on the presentations. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the panel and missed the reading. I will have to find each of the poets’ works to read in print, if I am to inflect the critical presentation with their poetic expressions.
The purpose of the symposium was to investigate writing on territory and borders, and as Bhanu Kapil said in her introduction, especially the feeling in the body just before crossing. Kapil noted the absence of voices, such as poets from the southwest who could speak directly to urgent immigration issues. There are so many voices missing. Heavy duty for those poets on the mic.
Talking about territories or nations (or even communities, in the sense of something that one can belong or not belong to) limits possibility, and Sueyeun Juliette Lee says it also gives substance. Nations and races are confabulations, fictions we perpetuate through our participation. She was talking about Korea, which for her is like flying a kite: “the body longs for flight and is confronted by its limitation.”
Kass Fleisher eschewed directly addressing “territory” and, instead, talked about trauma writing—trauma being a subject, itself, that crosses borders. She began by referencing findings from neuroscience as it relates to trauma writing and insisted that “we are going to have to start listening to the neurologist”, but she asked if the scientists will have to listen to poets. In her language (directed at an audience of poets) I heard force and authority, specifically the compulsion to comply with scientific authority.
She quoted a recent essay by Barry Lopez on the trauma of sexual abuse. One sentence described the rapist evoking, in the act of rape, the compulsion to comply with medical authority. The similarity in tone was a coincidence but an interesting one.
Cognitive poetics is a school of literary study that uses tools from cognitive science as a means to study literature, and it entails the shared vocabulary Fleisher asked for (cognitive/poetic). This is a rich field of study, and I was glad to hear Fleisher reference neuroscience in her talk.
However, as writers, I believe what we bring to the table is our ability (even response-ability) to challenge and undermine scientific-medical authority. I listen to neurologists with the same skepticism I have for phrenologists.
Science, though, was not the main topic of Fleisher’s talk. Her main argument was that trauma writing makes use of “syntax free” language, the very language of experimental poetics. The only way to invoke the aesthetic of trauma is to break out of syntax. She read another passage from Lopez’s essay where syntax seemed to fall apart and the language became “non-aesthetic”. Learning to read experimental poetry, she said, enables one to write (and read) trauma without aestheticizing violence.
Craig Santos Perez was like a (cool) high school social studies teacher, except that he covered something that is never taught in high school: the history of the unincorporated territories of the United States. He had to break it down, and he did. Unincorporated territories, such as Guam, are considered “foreign in a domestic sense”. Certain rights are extended to the people of these territories but many rights are withheld, and all rights can be revoked by Congress. Nothing is guaranteed. He included some historical information about Colorado and Sand Creek Massacre, as well. Behind him, slides displayed the expansion of the US from 1789-1959: a growing monster, murderous and rapacious. The map Perez displayed is similar to this one that shows the expansion of slavery as the US grew.
How to tell without violating? Juliana Spahr has tried various methods, including not using the names of nations and instead using terms such as: here or spaces or “an island in the Pacific” or “an island in the Atlantic”. She confessed (and it really felt like a confession) to using Hawaiian words acquired from bilingual dictionaries or words from internet sites in her poetry. As Spahr listed her many failed [sic] attempts to tell without violating, it became clear that she was in earnest about writing ethically. She said that writing about the wholesome smell of fresh turned soil only replicates the lies of the ruling class. What is important is the price of grain and the cost of labor.
I was reminded of another writer who had sat on the same stage at the Summer Writing Program when I was a Naropa student. In 2007, Indira Ganesan gave one of the most memorable lectures I had the chance to attend. Her talk wasn’t a finished product but an engagement with the unfinished writing process. Ganesan was vulnerable and honest, demonstrating the qualities necessary to sit down and write.
Spahr exhibited that kind of vulnerability on this panel. She spoke openly about regrets concerning her poetry. In her own opinion, none of her methods had been particularly effective. In some cases, she even considered herself a transgressor. However, what I heard was a poet trying and trying again to get it right. “Writing is failure standing up.”
Last year I attended the Symposium on Violence and Community, also co-curated by Michelle Naka Pierce and Bhanu Kapil. This new tradition at Naropa continues to confront difficult matters with creative thought and critical poetics.
Last year I began a dark ecology reading of Sam Delany’s novel Trouble on Triton using the techniques from Ecology Without Nature by Timothy Morton. In the first part I asked, “What poetics does Delany deploy to describe the environment?” Next, I considered two other readings of the novel that are interested in content and form, and I compared them with a dark ecology reading. Now I am into the third section that asks:
“What does this novel make possible/impossible today?”
Two concepts emerge from Morton’s politicizing of dark ecology: radical juxtaposition and radical kitsch. First, I will consider the technique of radical juxtaposition, which Morton identifies as a method of criticism and an artistic practice favored by the avant-garde. Radical juxtaposition doesn’t just contrast content but also plays with form and subject position (p.143). It is disconcerting, because it troubles the gaze.
Frame tales, for example, call into question content, form, and subject position by problematizing the seemingly straightforward questions: What is the story, and who is the author? Likewise, art installations that present objects without frames or frames without objects destabilize figure and ground so that the subject position is brought into relief. What I recollect most vividly of Tino Seghal’s 2010 exhibit at the Guggenheim in NYC is not the man and woman embracing on the marble floor, nor the faces of the people who walked and talked with us as we made our way up the spiral ramp; the impression that remains with me, as if seared onto my mind’s eye, is my friend and I, together in the museum that day: we are framed by the poignant brightness of the blank white walls.
Like deconstruction, radical juxtaposition is a critical endeavor that generates questions without definite responses and contrasts content and frame to challenge the subject position that decides what counts as frame and what as content (p.143). Deconstruction, as a form of semiotic analysis, was an explicit influence on Delany’s writing. In later parts of the Modular Calculus, he cites Derrida and has characters employ the methods of deconstruction (p.152). Delany “establishes a series of binary oppositions…and then proceeds to reverse the values within each pair.” (p.144)
Trouble on Triton juxtaposes two versions of societies, a popular science-fiction trope also used by Ursula Le Guin in The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia; but Delany does more than compare the societies on planets with societies in the satellites, he calls to attention the models used to make the comparison.
Delany says he intended the reader to experience a reversal of values concerning Bron from sympathetic to antagonistic. Explicitly, the novel compares different societies, and the merits of each are debated by the characters. But the debate can not be taken at face value, because the explanation is provided by an agent of the government. Indeed, the actual workings of any such social system was not Delany’s concern (Concordia University).
What Trouble on Triton implicitly compares are different ways that language constructs a narrative model and different ways of reading the protagonist. It is a radical juxtaposition, one that plays with form and subject position, because Delany provides a third twist in an appendix that acknowledges the political context of separation, hierarchy, and alienation. Appendix B identifies the subtle shift in language that works against those who do not conform to the ways of society in the satellites. As I discussed in an earlier blog, that subtle shift of language is a technique Delany uses in the novel to move the reader’s sympathy away from the protagonist. Ashima Slade critiques the satellite societies for this use of language to maintain a political context that engenders antagonism:
“…we have simply…overdetermined yet another way for the rest of us to remain oblivious to other people’s pain.” (p.303)
The novel contrasts positive and negative attitudes toward the protagonist, and Appendix B identifies the manipulation of those attitudes by context. Taking both together, the problem the reader must work out is how to regard Bron knowing that the choice can only be based on a flawed model. This is the problem of the Beautiful Soul, and dark ecology provides a way out:
“By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze…on the
ground in slow motion, this looks like forgiveness.” (Beautiful Soul Syndrome)
Delany says it is a misreading of Trouble on Triton to identify too closely with the protagonist (Concordia University). But I did identify with Bron: My internal dialog is also riddled with parenthetical interjections. When jealousy and resentment lead me to act petty and blame others, I forget. And my noble acts often happen by accident, because I was in the right place or because someone else encouraged me. I also identify with the Spike, because I am an artist and because sometimes I’m so angry I want to rake up the coals.
The characters in Trouble on Triton are unable to forgive each other or themselves, but the book makes it possible for the reader to forgive by withholding and then giving responsibility. Radical juxtaposition reframes the question of blame or innocence for Bron’s predicament to a simpler and more difficult question: Does he suffer? Recognizing and taking responsibility for suffering means forgiveness, but it also entails action—radical action that doesn’t merely rearrange but changes the way things are.
In my next blog, I will continue asking what this novel makes possible/impossible by looking at Delany’s genre writing as “radical kitsch”.
This month Lexington’s Carnegie Center honored half a dozen authors as the freshman class in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. Among the initial inductees is Kentucky’s first writer: William Wells Brown.
Brown was born in 1814 and escaped slavery at twenty years of age. He became a prominent abolitionist whose writing includes memoir, fiction, and historical non-fiction. Brown’s memoir begins:
I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose.
The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave has a place among other slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Ann Jacobs’. His story is harrowing and awe-inspiring.
Brown’s most significant work, though, is Clotel; or the President’s Daughter, a fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s progeny. This book stands out as the first novel by an African-American and stands along side other 19th century American classics, such as Moby Dick, which was published two years prior. Like Melville, Brown brings to bear fiction and nonfiction techniques in the writing of his antislavery novel, including: poetry, anecdotes, newspaper articles, speeches, and letters.
Other inductees to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame are Harriette Arnow, Harry Caudill, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, and, the Pulitzer prize winner, Robert Penn Warren. Kentucky has a rich literary history and an abundance of writers. I look forward to seeing other authors honored in the years to come.
In September, I continued further in my dark ecology reading of Trouble on Triton and explored how Bron exemplifies the Beautiful Soul, the subject position figured in Ecology Without Nature. Bron’s consummerist attitude is refined to the point that he is alienated from every conceivable subject position. He refuses to be a type of consumer in a society that demands consumption. His predicament, though, is not unique. As Delany explains in an interview, the second appendix to the novel suggests Bron’s dilemma has a political side that is not obvious in a narrative told from his point of view. (Concordia University)
The second appendix concerns Ashima Slade, a character referred to in the novel but who doesn’t actually participate in the narrative. Slade turns out to be something of Bron’s doppelganger: also from Mars, also with a scar above his eye, also involved with metalogics, and also undergoes a sex change operation. These are striking similarities, and while Bron lives a frustrated life of mediocrity, Slade seems to have lived a frustrated life of intellectual brilliance. Slade, at least, is able to identify a political cause for their shared frustration:
Our society in the Satellites extends to its Earth and Mars emigrants, at the same time it extends instruction on how to conform, the materials with which to destroy themselves, both psychologically and physically—all under the same label: Freedom. (p.302)
The above excerpt is part of Slade’s treatise on the concept of landscape, a concept very much in accord with dark ecology. Landscapes are constructed by framing both objects and subjects. Delany envisions a society of Satellites that is fully landscaped: the inviolability of the subjective, which is what Morton calls the Beautiful Soul, “maintains a split between self and world, an irresolvable chasm…” (p.118). Unlike Bron, Slade recognizes the political forces that utilize the push and pull of language to enforce this split, which he says is “yet another way for the rest of us to remain oblivious to other people’s pain.” (p.303)
How language manipulates Bron and other emigrants isn’t directly apparent in the 3rd person narrative because it is 3rd person, but Delany does manage to step out of the 3rd person briefly in the novel itself. He gives the Spike a an epistolary voice that embodies the ebb and flow of language identified by Slade. The letter occurs in the middle of the novel but was the first part to be written. Her scathing diatribe makes explicit the unsympathetic response to Bron that Delany intended, giving voice to the reader’s sneaking suspicion that “Bron is not a very nice man.” (Concordia University).
The letter is introduced in the text by several paragraphs laden with medial elements that accentuate the epistolary qualities, such as delivery mechanism, return address, and opening salutation. In the letter itself, the Spike attempts to apply ambient poetics, including the “As I write this…” opening that Morton identifies as quintessential to ecomimesis. (p.32)
If it were seven o’clock in the evening instead of two in the morning I would just sign it there and send it but it is two o’clock in the morning with real moonlight coming over the Lahesh mountains and doing marvelous things to the rain that’s been falling against the window for the last three minutes…(p.191)
The rhetorical effect, though, is weakened by an additional element: the voice-scripter fails to work properly and frequently interjects her verbal commands instead of implementing those commands. The letter opens with Bron’s name but is immediately followed by an imperative not meant for him:
Bron, and then I guess you better put a colon no a dash—
This opening must be re-read several times to be understood, as it would also take Bron several readings to understand. The “you” being addressed is the instrument the Spike is using. This isn’t the opening of a letter but the record of someone writing the opening of a letter. The Spike’s intended opening sentence is cliched: “The world is a small place.” The instructions being explicit changes the sentence’s domain and imbues the statement with more energy; the subject isn’t the abstract concept “the world” but the letter itself, and the Spike has agency as the letter’s composer.
Slashes, dashes, and italics are expressed as imperatives for most of the letter and vitiate the ambient poetics the Spike tries to use. In the middle section, however, the voice-scripter begins to work properly as the Spike asserts her reasons for not liking Bron. These sentences are constructed so that Bron is assigned agency for actions that are destructive: “I was offended at your assumption…I was amused/angered at your insistence…I thought your making Miriamne lose her job was horrible.” (p.192) The voice-scripter reduces the effectiveness of the Spike’s poetic elements in the first part of the letter but transcribes her vitriol without interruption. Thus, her criticism “feels” true to the reader.
In a very concrete way, Delany uses language to withhold the Spike’s means of constructing her message except where that message is most destructive. This letter, which was the first thing written of the novel, models the way language is used in the novel to push and pull on readers’ sympathies concerning Bron; and the Spike is made complicit in this political process. The final paragraph of her letter begins with the charge that Bron’s faults are a result of emotional laziness, but in a moment of blatant hypocrisy, she chooses not to revise the letter before sending it. The disruptions of the voice-scripter, that reduce the effectiveness of her intended poetics, becomes intentional and is an element of ambient poetics: the Remark, that which “differentiates between space and place.” (p.49)
Like Bron, accusing the Spike of hypocrisy misapprehends her subject position. She is unable to take a critical view of herself; she can’t see her own assumptions nor discern her own emotional inertia. She is able to condemn Bron because she sees herself as separate and different, not only from him but from the entire Universe:
I’m angry—at the Universe for producing a person like you—and I want to rake up the coals. I want them to burn. (p.192)
Her statement simultaneously recalls the conversation where Bron says people like him should be exterminated and foreshadows the fiery destruction of Earth by the Satellites. This is the cry of the Beautiful Soul and expresses the attitude that makes possible the devastating war between the Satellites and the worlds Earth and Mars. The Spike, as much as Bron, is a Beautiful Soul; but she is a native of the Satellites and favored by the political forces that frustrate Bron, Slade, and other emigrants from the worlds.
Many readers of Trouble on Triton have understood Bron to be a singularly irredeemable jerk in a near-utopian society, and such an interpretation was certainly Delany’s intention. Or rather, such a misinterpretation was his intention. (Concordia University) Bron only appears to be unique in the Satellites because the narrative is told from his point of view. Delany framed the story so that Bron’s prejudices would become apparent to readers, and their attitudes toward him would shift not only once but twice by the end of the book.
The shifting attitude toward the protagonist reveals the influence of the story’s frame as it creates the narrative landscape, which, as Sam says in the first appendix, is the primary hero of the s-f novel. (p.282) Bron is not unique in the Satellites and is the product of them, as are Slade and the Spike. Far from being utopian, what is revealed by the Satellites is that at its extreme the inviolability of the subjective entails genocide—and that everyone is responsible for the destruction.
In my next post, I will explore the political implications of reading Trouble on Triton as dark ecology. What is made possible/impossible?
On Thursday, Peter Jaeger gave a lecture at Naropa on John Cage and Zen poetics. In Cage fashion, Jaeger utilized the I Ching in the production and performance of his lecture. Breaks and pauses occurred as determined by randomly generated integers. One audience member, a junior at Naropa’s School of the Arts, said, “the effect was provocative because he used a technique he was describing, but the pauses themselves were annoying.” I do not think Jaeger would disagree.
Cage’s performances frequently induced annoyance. In fact, when Cage gave a reading at Naropa in 1974 he sat for two hours with his back to the audience and was assailed with bird calls and thrown objects. Allen Ginsberg and other poets intervened to protect him. Jaeger explained that the annoyance audiences feel is a response to boredom, and Cage’s prescription for boredom was typically Zen:
“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” -Cage
Jaeger emphasizes the aesthetics of failure in mimetic art and describes Cage’s approach to mimesis as analogous to Indra’s Jeweled Net. There is no origin, no narrative structure, nor a teleological conclusion.
“Each small part is a sample of what we find elsewhere.” -Cage
Many of Cage’s performances, such as Water Walk and Indetermancy, were overloaded with information. When asked if he would ever conduct Beethoven, Cage said he would but only if he could have nine orchestras playing nine different symphonies simultaneously. Yet, Cage’s most influential piece, 4:33, contains very little information. The pianist is instructed to open the piano, sit for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then close the piano. That is all.
Jaeger compares the silences (that are not silent) in Cage’s music to the hole cut out of the Romanian flag that Zizek identified in 1993 as “the most sublime image that emerged in the political upheaval of the last years.” The blank space cannot be reconstituted as meaning. Without meaning, what is a symbol?
For me this recalls absolute symbolism discussed in True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art. Rather than denoting something outside of itself, such as an authority in the case of the flag or a theme in the case of art, the absolute symbol denotes itself. The silences (that are not silent) foreground the medial element—like the crackle of a PA system when the power is engaged.
My question concerns the reaction to Cage and other artists, like Marcel Duchamp, reactions that oscillate between adoration and hostility, with little in-between. Either you love it or hate it, there is no middle ground. Why is that?
It seems to me that Cage’s art engenders a narrow field of appreciation. There is a specific subject position from which one can experience the sound of traffic, for example, as art; outside that subject position one is confronted with noise. Experimenting with syntax doesn’t eradicate the authority of grammar; authority is the figure of such poetry. Pushing against the boundary of what we consider art draws our attention to this constricting field of appreciation.
Jaeger doesn’t agree with my assessment that Cage’s art had a narrow field of appreciation. He’s right. People experience his art in many different ways. The field of appreciation could include various responses from those who understand Cage to be a Buddhist, an anarchist, a charlatan, an environmentalist, or who have no particular conception of the artist at all. Also, other types of art (the Parthenon frieze, the artifacts buried at Sutton Hoo, or the Mona Lisa) might inspire feelings of hostility in some audiences; Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. suggests a certain antagonism. Giving it more thought, I reconsider the force of my previous conclusion. There is more going on in this art than rebellion or audacity.
The random pauses in Jaeger’s lecture did not annoy me. I found them welcome moments to process language dense with meaning. Cage said that the material of music is sound and silence. In the silences (that are not silent), sounds proliferate so that there is the possibility for more and more and more music. The material of a lecture, such as this one, isn’t merely ideas but also viscera.
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Americas Latino Festival, a prelude to a four-day festival with dozens of writers and artists that is scheduled for 2013. Irene Vilar, the director of the festival, spoke of art being intrinsic to culture and of Latino culture being intrinsic to the Americas. Vilar writes about trauma as a personal, familial, and cultural occurrence. Her book, Impossible Motherhood, is difficult and necessary because it describes her painful experience with abortion in a broad context and does so without political agenda.
Luis J. Rodriguez also spoke about the necessity of art, especially for marginalized communities plagued by violence and poverty. Rodriguez grew up with gangs in East LA, and it was art that saved him. He painted, but it was books, ultimately, that helped him survive and make his life. He and his wife founded the Tia Chucha Bookstore in LA, and he works internationally to end violence and empower young people through art and creativity. During his talk, Rodriguez drew attention to the more than 2 million people incarcerated in the US.
I believe the (in)justice system is the most important issue this country faces, and in a hundred years people will look back on this time in US history with incredulity that it went so long ignored. I’ve written two short pieces focused on this topic: Prison Cell and Walk Like a Man, and I continue to find ways to keep awareness of those imprisoned in my work. After his talk, I asked Rodriguez what he saw in the future for the prison industrial complex.
He agreed about the urgency of the prison issue and lamented that no one, neither Democrat nor Republican, is willing to talk about it. He alluded to Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Rodriquez went on to suggest specifics, such as reducing sentences and offering rehabilitation to those convicted of crimes. Two or three years is all most prisoners would need to serve (with rehabilitation), and the mentally ill should not be housed in prisons. Art—creating beauty—is the antidote. “We could put an end to prisons altogether,” he said. “No prisons and no crime either.” As strange and impossible as that may sound, it’s realistic considering that no other country in the world has an incarceration rate near that of the United States. The goal isn’t to become utopian; the goal is to become civilized.
Tim Z. Hernandez offered some closing remarks, sharing a personal anecdote about teaching poetry at a local high school. Hernandez is the director of the Writers-in-the-Schools program I wrote about last month and the author of several books, including Skin Tax. The impetus for the poems in Skin Tax was Hernandez’s desire to give voice to the young men in his community. He continues to write and teach out of the same desire.
I’ve focused on the writers from last night, because that’s my thing, but there was also music and food and families galore. Innisfree had a table with books, and another table sold bilingual picture books for children. As a prelude to the Americas Latinos Festival 2013, the event last night manifested what each of the writers spoke to: the salutary quality of uniting art and community.
Continuing my reading of Trouble on Triton, I’m responding to the question:
How is a dark ecology reading different from readings centered on content and form?
The figure at the center of dark ecology is what Timothy Morton calls the Beautiful Soul, a subject position that directs a critical eye toward everything except itself. Morton uses Hegel to identify consumerism as the quintessential attitude of the Beautiful Soul.
Consumerism isn’t merely consuming; it is performing. One may abstain, as did Percy and Mary Shelley, who boycotted sugar in protest of the Slave Trade; one may also dine on steak, as in Trouble on Triton when Bron and the Spike go to a kitsch restaurant built in People’s Capitalist China. Whether abstaining or indulging, the performance of consuming is an expression of the same subject position: the consumerist. This subject position allows one to occupy subject positions that are “technically reproducible commodities.” (p.113) The societies in Trouble on Triton consider these commodities inviolate and their consumption imperative.
The description of Bron’s attitude toward the ego-booster booths exemplifies the consumerist. The ego-booster booths are kiosks at which any one can pay to view a snippet of surveillance video collected on them by the government. Bron doesn’t want to be the type who uses these booths and invents an witticism to describe them:
It was as if (he used to think, and had said a number of times, and had gotten a number of laughs when he said it) the Germans, during Earth’s Second World War, had decided to make Dachau or Auschwitz a paying tourist proposition before the War was over. (p.5)
Bron forswore using the ego-booster booths for years, until he recognized he was becoming the type who considered himself better than those who did. He doesn’t want to identify as any type; his subject position is more sophisticated than that. So, he occasionally uses the ego-booster booths but with an ironic distance. Because consumerism commodifies subject positions, it allows one to occupy contrary positions.
Accusing Bron of hypocrisy overshoots the mark; he is not insincere. While he has the acumen to perceive faults in others, he is unable to critically view himself. On his second date with the Spike, he is on the verge of tears describing his anger toward one of his bosses. He is angry, not only because the beautiful, wholesome life enjoyed by a certain class of people is unavailable to him, but also because no one acknowledges it is unavailable to him. He wants to be understood, but he can’t even understand himself.
In the satellites, every consumerist lifestyle is endorsed. Whether your choice is to raise a loving family or to debauch yourself on BDSM and junk food, no desire is censured by government or community. Bron’s problem is that he doesn’t know what he wants:
“Decide what you like and go get it? Well, what about the ones of us who only know what we don’t like?” (p.104)
Morton describes Beautiful Soul Syndrome as the gaze that positions one outside the world. Bron is able to condemn the societies of the satellites because he sees himself as apart from those societies. His description is accurate (it is an unfair and unjust social system), but his problem is the subject position from which he looks at those societies as if he isn’t part of the injustice.
“Evil isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Evil is the eye of the beholder. Evil is the gaze that sees the world as an evil thing over yonder.” (Morton UCLA)
As Bron concludes his diatribe, the Spike notices a change in his body language. His tone of voice changes, his body shifts, and his shoulders pull back as he admits to causing a mutual acquaintance to lose her job. He denies knowing how or why: “I don’t know how any of those things came about. And I don’t want to know.” (p.104) The changes in tone and body language are significant, because it is in such moments of self-awareness that the Beautiful Soul Syndrome is most active.
He scowled behind his mask. “Then people like me should be exterminated!”
[The Spike's] masked eyes glittered. “That would be a solution; I thought we were discounting those from the start.”
He kept scowling and was silent. (p.106)
Delany’s choice of words is meaningful: exterminated and solution. The connection with the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews as the Final Solution might not be immediately obvious, but the proximity of these particular words in the context of the novel is provocative. Later, the Spike does consider that very solution in the letter she sends to Bron from Earth, and the satellite societies actually do exterminate the Earthies.
Morton addresses this turn of the Beautiful Soul, as well. He recognizes that eventually the critical eye will find one’s own attitude repulsive and vainly attempt to find a subject position that isn’t merely aesthetic. “Merely” is the Achilles Heel that dooms the attempt to failure. Reproving the Beautiful Soul recapitulates consumerism.
“At a certain limit of thinking, then, transcending Beautiful Soul Syndrome means forgiving the Beautiful Soul, recognizing that we are responsible for this Syndrome, whether we think of ourselves that way or not. The only way out of the problem is further in…”(Morton UCLA)
Before jumping to forgiveness and the way out offered by Trouble on Triton, I want to go further in and extend the dark ecology reading to show that other characters in the novel occupy the same subject position as Bron.
Last week I participated in a workshop for Writers in the Schools. This is my second year with WITS and Colorado Humanities. As a writer, the opportunity to share my craft with young people is both edifying and inspiring. In developing a lesson for young students, I examine the mechanics of my writing and identify the specific component of my own process that I want to teach. In the classroom, students ineluctably generate surprising responses to the writing exercises and inspire me to think of my own writing in new ways.
Jack Collom literally wrote the book on teaching poetry in the classroom: Poetry Everywhere. He opened the WITs workshop by leading a writing exercise with seventeen of us. As we gathered around a landscaped pond outside the Colorado Humanities offices in Denver, he asked us to write and share a poem that expressed the “pondness of the pond”, an exercise similar to the activities John Daido Loori Roshi prescribed during a Zen intensive weekend.
I had Jack as a professor at Naropa University and have watched him teach elementary school children. In both situations, he is able to inspire everyone to write—on the spot, anyone in his workshops writes and writes well. His teaching style is also the same in both situations. For adult writers, he is able to activate the playfulness of language. For young writers, he brings out the discipline and rigor necessary for creative writing.
When I teach mathematics, students often ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” The doubt is palpable in their voices. I answer the question with a metaphor that most students are able to understand (even if they don’t readily believe). Doing mathematics is like weight training. Football players do not lift metal bars during a game, but during practice they do. Athletes train with weights because they want to isolate and develop specific muscle groups. Students train with various mathematics to develop specific cognitive abilities: fluid reasoning, short term and working memory, long term memory retrieval, etc.
When I lead a workshop on poetry, students never ask when they will need this. Language is ubiquitous, and the way I teach, creative writing draws attention to the overlooked aspects of the language we know and use. Even young writers are fully equipped to write poetry. I don’t have to teach an eight year old the concept of rhythm or simile or imagery (although I might introduce or reinforce the vocabulary); my intention as a writer in the school is to help the young poet notice and use what she already knows.
Last month I explored a reading of Trouble on Triton focused on content, specifically the representations of sex in two of Delany’s novels. This month I turn my attention to another reading that analyzes form and structure in the series of books that constitute Sam Delany’s Modular Calculus. Trouble on Triton is the preface to this collection.
Kathleen Spence begins “Neveryon Desconstructed” by explaining her impetus for writing the essay: to understand the critical work of Jacques Derrida and novels by Sam Delany. Her motivation resembles my own as I write these blogs exploring the connection between Dark Ecology and Trouble on Triton.
While the genre of science-fiction is often defined in terms of content: stories that contain aliens, futuristic technology, or space travel; Delany argues that science-fiction also relies on a particular form, a metaphoric structure that allows a certain type of discourse to be read as a denotative description. (p. 284) For example, the phrase “sensory shield” in Trouble on Triton could be part of a discourse on the ideological machinery of a society based on the inviolability of the subjective, but in the novel, the phrase describes actual, physical machinery that surrounds the city of Tethys. This form simultaneously manifests an ideological concept and the evanescent awareness of ideology.
In addition to this intrinsic metaphoric structuring, Spence’s essay identifies two major techniques that Delany uses throughout the Modular Calculus. The first is to subvert reader expectations, especially those that relate to the science fiction genre but also expectations about novels and texts generally. The second is a process of contrasting and reversing values, a characteristic strategy of deconstruction. Both techniques serve what Spence identifies as Delany’s literary project: to explore, using narrative, the process of modeling and its implications.
Delany has said that the Modular Calculus began as “a child’s garden of semiotics”, and such is Trouble on Triton. (p.158) The question posed isn’t merely how we model our world, but how we choose between competing models: What makes one model useful? What makes another model useless or even harmful?
Spence deploys Paul de Man’s description of allegory to give context to this task. Allegorical reading connects aspects of a narrative model with aspects of the thing being modeled. The difficulty, though, is that narrative is temporal (stories usually have beginnings, endings, and middles), and the thing being modeled is often an atemporal thesis: the virtues in The Faerie Queene, the nature of androgyny in The Left Hand of Darkness, and in Delany’s work: “the process of constructing and interpreting cultural models” (p. 131).
According to de Man, the complicated task of reading allegory is facilitated by presenting a transparent surface narrative. The reader of science fiction is presented with the challenge of identifying references in the narrative that point to aspects of an implied model for our world; allegorical references in the text relate to the author’s model of our world, not our actual world. Astute readers of Trouble on Triton, primed for an allegorical reading, would look through the surface narrative toward features of the text that resemble signs and that point toward other features that resemble parts of a model. It is quite a complicated task, and this is, in fact, one of the pleasures of reading science fiction.
Delany relies on this priming of the reader to explore how models are constructed by undermining genre specific expectations. In a discussion with students at Concordia University, Delany described his intention for readers of Trouble on Triton:
As she or he moves through the novel, I’d hoped Common Reader would progress, in his or her responses, through a series of stages. In the first chapter, when you see the Ego Booster Booths, predicated on the idea that the government is collecting information on everybody, and hear their history, I wanted Common Reader to feel that Bron is a pretty average Joe, but that the society must be hugely repressive. Then, as the book goes on, I wanted Common Reader slowly to shift that opinion: soon it should become clear that Bron is a despicable man—but the society around him is actually fairly good. Finally, however, with the second appendix, I wanted Common Reader to get still another take on the tale: since other people from Mars seem to be having problems very similar to Bron’s, I wanted to leave the suggestion that there is a political side to these problems that the rest of the narrative—at least as it’s been told from Bron’s point of view—has up till now repressed or been blind to.
In each of the stages, Delany provides language that primes the reader for certain expectations and then undermines those expectations. The Ego Booster Booths remind readers of dystopian novels, such as 1984, and imply Bron might be in contention with an oppressive regime. But in subsequent chapters, Bron makes a pass at a woman in his office and then causes her to be fired. His behavior, in the late 1970s particularly, induces readers to loathe him. I say in the 1970s particularly because in the context of the society modeled by the novel, Bron’s behavior is neither unique nor especially pernicious. But as a literary technique, the effect these chapters have on readers is significant, demonstrated by the almost ubiquitous opinion among critics of the novel that Bron is “one of fiction’s sincerely, unlikable protagonists”. (p.133)
The second major technique Spence identifies is Delany’s application of deconstruction, “explicitly derived from the work of Jacques Derrida.” First, the Modular Calculus establishes binary opposites (world/satellite, man/woman, individual/society), and “then proceeds to reverse the values within each.” (p.144) In true Delany style, he not only deconstructs the binary opposites but has the text remark on the process of deconstruction. Spencer refers to the symbolism of the mirror that pervades the Neveryona tales as an example of this remark on deconstruction. While she does not identify a similar motif in Trouble on Triton, I find similarities between the mirror motif and the Ego Booster Booths. The mirrors do not just reflect images, as old Venn explains in Tales of Neveryon, but they distort the image to produce something altogether new. In Trouble on Triton, we are initially told that the surveillance video collected is randomly shown to those who use the booths (randomization being one kind of distortion), but later we find out the footage is not always random: images of Bron before her sex change are censored. As with the sensory shields, the government manipulates access to information to protect the inviolability of the subjective.
Perhaps the most interesting binary oppositions deconstructed in Trouble on Triton directly concern language: spoken versus written and literature versus criticism. In the sixth section of Spenser’s essay, she explicates several Derridean terms relevant to Delany’s writing: trace, dissemination, and différance to introduce these oppositions. She also provides background on the linguistic theory underpinning much of the Modular Calculus.
The primacy of speech is a generally accepted principle among linguists, but due to lack of empirical evidence competing theories abound. In another fictional essay that is part of the Modular Calculus, Delany, writing as S. L. Kermit, utilizes a theory of anthropologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat to posit a written language the could have preceded speech. The contrast between spoken and written narrative was also a topic of a lecture Delany gave at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program while I was a student there. During this talk, he emphasized the difference between a reader, who is empowered to re-read and skim ahead at her leisure, and a listener, who relies on the speaker to set the pace of the flow of words. This description explains why the oral tradition of storytelling uses certain devices, such as repetition and simple narrative structures, that are less effective in literary fiction.
According to Delany, speech was his inspiration for writing Trouble on Triton. He first had the idea for the novel after overhearing a dinner conversation of “unthinkable insensitivity” (Concordia University). He wrote the scene where the Spike tells off Bron as a letter she dictated into a “voice-scripter”. Bron first reads this caustic rejection as a government facsimile before receiving the actual transcript.
“What do I want to explain?
That I don’t like the type of person you are. Or that the type of person I am won’t like you. Or just: I italics don’t. Do I have the colon in there? Yes.”
Spence explains this as an example of the Derridean trace at work in the text: Bron reads a facsimile, but when he gets the actual letter it is also a copy of what Spike has said. The transcript includes the Spike’s editorial directives, as well as her intended communication to Bron, and so profiles the translation from speech to writing.
The distinction between literature and criticism throughout the Modular Calculus is explored by Delany’s inclusion of appendices that conflate these binary opposites. As a supplemental text, an appendix is both less than and more than the text. It is less than the whole of the text because it does not stand on its own. But the appendix is more than the text because it adds something that improves or enhances the text. To understand this logic, I think of Paul Fry’s explanation involving supplemental vitamins: A vitamin is less than food because it doesn’t have calories to sustain us, but a vitamin is more than food because it provides many more nutrients.
“Appendix A” of Trouble on Triton is a collection of notes and fragments, excluded from the novel. “Appendix B” is an essay about a series of unfinished lectures by the fictional character Ashima Slade. Incomplete in themselves, the appendices also imply the novel is insufficient on its own, or a more positive way of putting it is that the appendices suggest Delany is saying more than what is conveyed by the novel alone. Indeed, in the author’s own words quoted above, “Appendix B” offers the final turn on twists he intended for the reader. What is significant for the deconstruction of literature versus criticism, is that the final twist comes in the guise of criticism that is actually fiction: not only reversing the binary values but also undermining the opposition itself.
The content of Trouble on Triton concerns itself explicitly with sexual and racial issues, and Delany uses postmodern forms to investigate the social implications of our language systems around these issues. In my next blog, I will consider the subject positions engendered by the novel: not only the shifting positions Delany outlined, but also the consumerist attitude entailed by the ideological principle of inviolability of the subjective. In particular, I will argue that Timothy Morton’s Beautiful Soul Syndrome describes the novel’s main characters: Bron and the Spike.