19 July 2004

I've spent the morning reviewing web pages dedicated to answering the question,"What is postmodernism?" While a complete understanding of post-modernism continues to elude, my research this morning has at least justified its elusivity.

I found this web page by Dr. Mary Klages at the University of Colorado, Boulder, most interesting and most helpful. According to Klages, postmodernism embraces fragmentation, multiplicity, and instability. It is also concerned with the organization of knowledge. Klages writes, "In postmodern societies, anything which is not able to be translated into a form recognizable and storable by a computer--i.e. anything that's not digitizable--will cease to be knowledge. In this paradigm, the opposite of "knowledge" is not "ignorance," as it is the modern/humanist paradigm, but rather "noise." Anything that doesn't qualify as a kind of knowledge is "noise:" something that is not recognizable as anything within this system."

The very defintion of postmodernism, in all its unstable and fragmented multiplicity, becomes "noise" and is unknowable in a postmodern society. Maybe that's part of intellectualy draw? Maybe I'm just playing silly word games.

More than anything my postmodern ponderings have brought under a new and harsh light my complete lack of knowledge regarding the progression of literary thought. I don't know the key writers, the crucial works, who reacted against who, who was influence by who, etc., etc., etc. It's overwhelming. Because of this lack of knowledge I have little to judge my own ideas against. I've recently been concerned with my excessive dependence on reason, and from what I've read today that places me somewhere in the European period of enlightenment.

I'm thinking biological analogy and Ernst Haeckel: I'm the gill slitted human embryo that eventually developes into a human child. Will my intellectual ontogeny recapitulate literary phylogeny, such that eventually I will reach an ultra-cool state of postmodern awareness and thought and be able to rub shoulders with the geniuses who now post-date me by 250 years?

15 July 2004

I've an incredible urge to learn a new language. I staff the language resource center where students come to do their drills. Students in the intensive Chinese and Japanese language learning program spend almost as much time here as I do. We banter back and forth as they come and go. Sometimes they teach me words and phrases and I grow hungry for more. Right now I could do with all the nuance and newness of a different language, a fresh perspective, a completely new persona. Learning a language is the closest we come in this life to being reborn.

All this is part of an internal discussion I began back in February over my relationship to language.

25 February 03
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan completely enchanted me. Criticism first: the first few chapters are pure, inwardly focused, humorless autobiography. In general I think autobiographical childhood recollections are difficult to write well, and even harder to write truthfully and well. Kaplan admirably decided to write truthfully, though I found it hard as a reader to relate to her cool telling of her childhood self. In chapter two she describes the sudden death of her father when she was eight. In fiction not the place to put such an emotionally charge event, but maybe that's the luxury of a memoir?

The book gets interesting when she goes to boarding school in France and begins to paint the rich bilingual pun of her life. She lends tidbits of her academic knowledge. "Literature is essential to survival and impossible to understand. Literature lies and tells the truth about lying. Writing is the opposite of making something present. Writing is effacement." I don't really understand any of that, which is proabally why I like it so much.

I especially like her bit on Andre, one of her French boyfriends. He breaks up with her because, essentially, their words are different, thus their worlds are different. She wonders why a French word she says isn't the same as a French word he says. I answer because there is a lifetime of emotional and contextual significance associated with that word that is there for him, while she has little more than the translation. Two people need to have the same relationship to the language they communicate with in order to fully understand each other.

I had a similar experience with one of my Spanish boyfriends. We practiced language together, he to learn English and me to learn Spanish. Our relationship lasted until he started getting bad marks in his English class for having an American accent. He asked me to speak in a British accent to help him. I agreed to try, but it was impossible. Acting it on stage is one thing, but using a fake accent to build a relationship with was disastrous. I couldn't be my North Dakotan self, and I couldn't be my new Spanish personality. I was a perverted amalgamation of the different language personalities I had acquired.

"Inside our language is our history, personal and political," Kaplan writes. True it is on many levels.

French is what spurred, or was merely present and therefore associated with, Kaplan's coming of age. As was Spanish for me. Only after reading her book do I understand what it was to move to a foreign country at 18, grow-up and sort myself out in a different language. In high school I was incredibly shy. I wouldn't answer the phone and was deathly afraid of calling strangers, even just to make a reservation or check the balance in my bank account. In Spanish I could do everything I had struggled with as a shy young adult. A great unbuttoning.

Kaplan writes about writing, which made me realize that many of my desires are the desires of writers. Don't ask me what that means. But it is a sort of abstract dedication, a fetish, an obsession. And isn't that what higher learning really is? Not ambition at all, just abstract dedication and obsession.

She interestingly point out that autobiography is an impossible genre where the more you try to confess the more you lie.

She is concerened with how speaking good French is important in her academic life in the United States. "Is it just the furtive way academics seek social status?" she questions, "Or is it us feeding into French/European disdain for Americans, which makes us struggle against American ethnocentrism.

Some more quotes:

"Writing isn't a straigt line, but a process, where you have to get in trouble to get anywhere." (Write when your disturbed, she says.)

"The fact that we don't have as many words forces us to say more. The simplicity of our communicaiton moves us, we're outside of cliche." (We don't take it for granted like we do our own language, ideas in our native tongue . . . It is a way of airing ourselves, our souls.)

"Learning a language parallels that shift in identification, when you're able to feel close to a character in studying a language that isn't you." (Her punctuation is interesting, does she mean a character that isn't you, or a language that isn't you?)

Besides a bad auto-biographical start, Kaplan has a neat collection of moments of wisom and understanding to pass along. Indeed anyone who has learnt a language out of desire or necessity can identify with many of her struggles and discovered treasures.

12 July 2004

Today the ducks of Beebe lake have gathered on the edge of the concrete damn. Water slips from beneath their feet and falls 50 feet below. Their precarious situation on the waterfall's edge seems to not affect them in the least. They wait on the concrete retaining wall and the water rushing downstream brings them invertebrates and bits of algae to dine on. Do they worry about tumbling down the waterfall? Do they carefully place each webbed foot to avoid slipping? Do they have a plan in place in case they do?

From what I can see from behind my desk it seems not. Just the questions and observations of one caught in a decidely dry and non-precarious office building. Worries of one without wings. Jealousy of one who's afteroon meal was had in a much less dramatic manner.

07 July 2004

Microeconomics and introductory accounting are my chosen summer endeavors. A break from my idealistic, liberal education to be sure. Also completely necessary to avoid being guilty of the same narrow-mindedness I critically accuse the Republican right of. Also necessary to avoid being one of those Ithacan hippies who are both so cool and so clueless. (If I hear one more proclaim that Bush is as bad as Sadaam... )

I struggle with these two subjects on a philisophical level. Already the first chapter of my accounting textbook is filled with critical marginalia (e.g. "The Big Bad Assumption" scrawled in caps with stars around it on page 11 next to, "the monetary unit assumption requires that only transaction data that can be expressed in terms of money be included in the accounting records.)

My reasoning for thus torturing myself is this: conservatives too often forget that humans are more than inputs into a market economy, and liberals ignore the realities of living in a capitalist society. It's the duty of any politcally interested person to verse him or herself in the theory of both sides. Not to read opposing arguments dismissively, but to really listen to the statements that make your blood-boil, to listent to them over and over and over again until they make sense, and until they don't hurt so much.

Self inflicted brainwashing? Perhaps. Add these two classes to my summer reading of Kevin Phillips and I may yet be conservative before I turn 30.

Monogomy is for homely, insecure traditionalists and neophobics. Identifying myself in this group is a daily struggle.

On a more reasonable day I might temper that by saying that these sets are not mutually inclusive, and offer some theory of a loose correlation between the incidence of monogamy and homeliness or neophobia. I might even offer that secure, monogamous relationships offer men and women a secure base from which to pursue other endeavors. These endeavors may have been background noise during the period in which a mate was being selected and attained. In a monogamous relationship all the time and energy that was being spent on pursuing a mate can be directed into other efforts. How would society advance otherwise?

I might even offer that monogamy in the most common, physical, sense does not always require a mind-numbing monogamy of spirit and intelligence. The best relationships are probally not at all monogamous in the latter sense.

But not today. It's oppresively cloudy and I'm on page one of my brobdignagian accounting textbook for an online summer class. I'd much rather be ruminating on Billy Collins's witty, quirky collection of poems called Sailing Alone Around the Room, or blogging, or doing a crossword puzzle. Procrastination is only a temporary fix, belligerency is the only way of coping with statements from accounting textbooks like, "Fortunately most individuals in business are ethical."

Polarization, then amalgamation.

05 July 2004

Whilst the rest of the University sleeps, I am here at the Language Resource Center ready to welcome the language learning masses.

The weekend was a festive one: The fireworks display in Ithaca, on none other than Canada Day, was much more extravagant than the display my one-cow town in North Dakota puts on. I hung out with my new Puerto Rican friend Jose Antonio, went out for Thai food, and Canadian folk artist James Gordon made me laugh and cry, as any good folk artist will do, at Bound for Glory (Listen Sundays at 7:30pm on WVBR.com). Not a traditional way of showing my patriotism on independence day, but perhaps just as appropriate?

02 July 2004

My morning commute to work is the most pleasurable imaginable: a 10 minute stroll down a walking path built on the shores of Beebe Lake. Yesterday I found a frog so small that my thumb nail would have amply served as a king size bed for him. A moment of meditative observation was required to watch a slug cross the dry gravel walk. The goose shit is something to be reckoned with, but the goslings are charming in their adolescent awkwardness. And meandering paths of this type are the best for eliciting smiles from passerbys.

Perhaps most extraordinary: each morning there has been some class of a heron in a shallow cove staring intently into the water, fishing for his breakfast. Each afternoon on my way home there has been an old man, in the same cove, in the same pose, busy with the same task. An exercise in seeing, and believing in, the mythical.