Friday, December 4, 2009

Hooray!

I recently received this email;
Daniel,

My name is Jon Wood, I'm the Managing Editor at MMORPG.com.

I would be interested to see a full pass made at the WoW article that
you pitched to us in your last email. If you are interested, please let
me know. I would like to see the revised version by Wednesday, December
9th if at all possible.

Jon Wood


This means that the opening guns of my career have been fired. Awesome!

Further good news: two of my poems, Pissgrid and Failing in Love, were published in Broadside.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Brevity is stupid.

Today, during a message exchange with a friend on Facebook, she told me that she thought something I said was beautiful. It is my response to her apology for being long-winded. Since it just so happens that a) I can be a very vain and self-centered person, and b) this is entirely my blog and I get to do with it as I please, I will therefore post said beautiful line in an attempt to further inflate my ego:
The one thing that I will never be irritated by is long-windedness; there are many vices in writing, but failing to establish clarity in favor of brevity is the foulest.

The Veteran and the Supplicant: On the Methods and Implications of Modes of Address During the Freeport Debate

Beneath the cut is an examination of the modes of address used by Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in what is perhaps the most important debate in the series of debates they undertook in their respective campaigns for the Senate seat in Illinois. Specifically, it looks at the potential implications of Lincoln's use of "Judge" and "Judge Douglas" as a method of address, and Douglas' use of "Black Republicans" when speaking to and about Lincoln.

It's pretty boring stuff if you're not a) into the Civil War, particularly the preceding politics, and/or b) into rhetoric and how stuff gets named and what that means. In other words, you will probably not want to read this.

Although the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during the campaign for the Senate seat in the election of 1858 for Illinois were often quite similar, one in particular has been chosen for analysis due to the development of what would come to be called the Freeport Doctrine. During the course of the debate, Lincoln demanded of Douglas whether or not a territory could vote on whether or not to allow slavery in its constitution - as per Douglas’ conception of popular sovereignty - or if territories were bound to the obiter dictum delivered at the conclusion of the Dred Scott case, in which Chief Justice Taney claimed that neither the states nor the territories had a constitutional right to bar slavery from existing in any fashion.

Douglas responded to Lincoln with what has become known as the Freeport Doctrine, in which he argued that any territory could bar slavery from existing if it so chose merely by way of the adoption of laws and their enforcement; if a state or territory legislated laws that barred slavery, or if the local population’s law enforcement agencies refused to uphold slavery, then slavery could not exist in that territory. In the words of Douglas;
“It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations.”

The Freeport Doctrine was an elegant solution to what Lincoln doubtless believed to be an irresolvable conflict for Douglas.

While the historical high point of the Freeport Debate may have been the development of the Freeport Doctrine, it is but a pale shade of the debate in its entirety, in which each man demonstrated their full rhetorical strength. Douglas’ flashy, Washington, D.C.-tinged and highly educated tone, which he utilizes to appear as though he is speaking from a position of authority in which he knows not merely which policies are best but how - and has the power - to enact them, contrasted heavily with Lincoln’s homespun and cordial attitude, which caused him to appear as though he were supplicating humbly to a greater power in the hopes of great social change. The sensibilities and beliefs - as well as ethics - of each candidate come out strongly in their respective speaking sections, and I feel quite clearly in the fashion that each of the men chooses to address the other.

In the course of externally researching perspectives on the Freeport Debate, a common consensus seems to emerge between the impeccable logic and politeness of Lincoln, contrasted with the ravings and crassness of Douglas. While it is true that Douglas is more prone to insults and personal attacks than Lincoln (if only in raw quantity), I am not entirely convinced that Lincoln is deserving of the high pedestal upon which his speaking segments seem to have been placed by contemporary and historical critics, or that he was any more noble in his efforts at Freeport than Douglas; rather, it would seem to me that Lincoln is equally as deceitful and deliberate as Douglas, albeit in a substantially more subtle fashion. That is not to say that Douglas was incapable of subtlety - indeed, what seems to be his crowning achievement in the Freeport Debate was his ability to ensnare Lincoln into choosing party loyalty and reliability or personal integrity.

However, a perhaps more proper place to begin an examination of both Lincoln and Douglas’ rhetorical methods might best be the fashion in which they addresses one another; always, Lincoln refers to Douglas as either “[the] Judge” or “Judge Douglas.” Topically, this appears a cordiality and a polite reverence for Douglas’ station as a legal authority. However, it also serves a more subliminally coercive purpose; to alienate the audience from Douglas. Merely by referring to Douglas exclusively by his title, Lincoln paints him not only as an authority figure but rather a figure displaced from the common man listening to the speech, as presumably, the average citizen of 19th century Freeport Illinois had a far lesser social standing than that of a judge. Further, Lincoln is also removing Douglas from the pool of even the social and economic elite; while lawyers and doctors and perhaps even politicians are arguably seen as being higher on the social ladder, surely a judge is even higher yet.

This device of Lincoln’s, while difficult to actually determine the efficacy of, served if nothing else to draw a line between the two candidates; Lincoln, a lawyer, on one side, and Douglas, a judge and senator, on the other. Referring to Douglas as a judge also draws Douglas as a figure that has been involved in Washington and in the legal system for some time, as both positions he held infer a great deal of experience and time spent. As was seen in the presidential election of 2008, a candidate of change can rally their base in opposition of the established order, which when seen in the context of a new face, can appear as confined in their methods, dated, and possibly even corrupt, and can propel the candidate of change into office far faster than the candidate of experience and knowledge – provided the political climate favors change.

It should here be noted that this is a contemporary perspective concerning social status; in modern, American society, individuals that have attained the status of judge tend to be looked upon with more reverence and respect than would, for example, a sales clerk or carpenter be. Even were members of American society in the mid-19th century possessing of such high social standing as judge not given the reverence that they are today, Lincoln’s insistence on the title drew a clear line between, if nothing else, the economic status of Douglas and the typical citizen.

Although I was unable to determine whether or not Douglas was aware of what Lincoln was doing by referring to him as Judge Douglas, either intentionally on Lincoln’s part or not, Douglas seems to have played directly into Lincoln’s hands when his turn to speak came. Douglas’ arguments, while brilliantly phrased and structured, tended to refer to his experience as a legislator and his knowledge of the players in Washington, D.C.; although they make clear to the audience that Douglas knew the inner workings of both parties quite well (Douglas even going so far as to detail the political alliances made to, in Douglas’ words, “Abolitionize the two parties” (p. 18)), his responses also demonstrate to the audience that he is a politician and not a typical citizen.

Douglas himself wields the sword of labeling quite effectively during his speaking segments, although he utilizes it in a substantially different way. Lincoln’s use of “Judge Douglas” places the spotlight on Douglas as an individual, and not a member of the collective entity of the Democrat Party, which can have the effect of causing Douglas’ decisions, policies, and beliefs to be his in exclusivity - which is exactly the opposite of the effect that Douglas himself created when speaking against Lincoln. Instead of creating a rhetorical device of a form of hero worship as Lincoln did, Douglas instead chose to frame Lincoln as a mere - but inextricable - extension of the Republican Party.

More specifically, Douglas framed Lincoln as an extension of the Black Republican Party, a phrase which he used more than twenty times during the course of his ninety minute speaking segment, and in doing so he accomplished a number of interesting things. Chiefly, he hammered the point that the Republican Party was attempting to grant universal and equal rights, on a national scale, to blacks, and by calling the Republican Party the Black Republican Party he created a label that would endure with the audience and clearly link black rights with the Republican Party. The label of Black Republican is an important one due to the fashion in which Douglas referred to Lincoln; that is, generally, he did not, instead referring to the Republican Party as a whole rather than Lincoln as an individual. However, it should be noted that while Douglas avoids mentioning Lincoln by name overmuch, he does so in a couple of particular instances - most notably, as seen below, when Douglas is attempting to paint Lincoln as a liar or hypocrite.

In order to effectively understand why Douglas attempted to tie Lincoln to what he called the Black Republican Party, it is first necessary to examine the established Republican Party platform and some of the responses Lincoln made to questions asked by Douglas. The Republican platform, and some of the resolutions that it passed, consisted of often strong abolitionist language as can be seen in the resolutions passed by the Rockford Convention of 1854 that Douglas implied was the primary platform of the party;
“...to restore Kansas and Nebraska to the position of Free Territories; to repeal and entirely abrogate the Fugitive Slave Law; to restrict slavery to those States in which it exists; to prohibit the admission of any more Slave States in the Union; to exclude slavery from all the Territories over which the General Government has exclusive jurisdiction; and to resist the acquisition of any more territories, unless the introduction of slavery therein forever shall have been prohibited.”
Importantly, the resolution also contained the following clause; “...we will support no man for office under the General or State Government who is not positively committed to these principles.”


With this platform in mind, it is now necessary to examine some of the responses made by Lincoln in his first speaking session, in which he answers a series of questions that Douglas presented to him, presumably, during the debate prior to the one held in Freeport. These questions seem to have been pulled specifically from the resolution passed at the Rockford Convention; for example, question one asks, “I desire to know whether Lincoln to-day stands, as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law?” Lincoln’s response: “I do not now, nor ever did, stand in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law.” Another example; in question three, Douglas asks “I want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make?” Lincoln’s reply: “I do not stand pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make.” (p. 1-2)

As can be seen even in this small sampling of responses from Lincoln, he clearly is not a politician terribly concerned with towing the party line at the cost of everything else; rather, he has reasoned, thoughtful, and careful responses to the questions (which are later explained in greater detail) that Douglas presented, and it is precisely for this reason that Douglas seeks to tie Lincoln to what he refers to as the Black Republican Party. Douglas is attempting, I believe, to distance Lincoln from his own answers in the eyes of the audience so that the more radical platform of the Republican Party - which may have not been entirely palatable for citizens of mid-19th century Illinois - were also the policies of Lincoln himself.

Clearly, Lincoln’s responses are substantially different than what would be expected were he a politician that heavily identified with the Republican Party as framed by Douglas. It would initially seem that Lincoln’s responses might undermine what Douglas was attempting by referring to Lincoln as a member of the party, but rather, it appears that the entire machination was rather a shrewd logic trap laid out by Douglas, as can be seen towards the end of Douglas’ speaking section. After laying out the platforms built by two separate Republican conventions, Douglas hones in on a particular stipulation found therein; that, as quoted above, “...we will support no man for office under the General or State Government who is not positively committed to these principles.”

Douglas demands of the audience:
“Thus you see every member from your Congressional District voted for Mr. Lincoln, and they were pledged not to vote for him unless he was committed to the doctrine of no more Slave States, the prohibition of slavery in the Territories, and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law. Mr. Lincoln tells you to-day that he is not pledged to any such doctrine. Either Mr. Lincoln was then committed to those propositions, or Mr. Turner violated his pledges to you when he voted for him. Either Lincoln was pledged to each one of those propositions, or else every Black Republican Representative from this Congressional District violated his pledge of honor to his constituents by voting for him.”
(p. 21)

Although Lincoln responds in his closing segment eloquently and effectively, explaining that “...if he will find any of these persons who will tell him anything inconsistent with what I say now, I will resign, or rather retire from the race, and give him no more trouble,” (p. 25) it is difficult to determine on which side the audience will fall. On one hand, Lincoln was quite clear in his opening speech that “If any interrogatories which I shall answer I go beyond the scope of what is within these platforms, it will be perceived that no one is responsible but myself,” (p. 1) suggesting that he is not necessarily entirely in favor of all of the policies of the Republican platform. Conversely, this also suggests that either Lincoln does not care for the platform of the party and will act in what he presumably believes to be in the best interest of the country, or that he deceived the Republicans in order to secure his nomination. What makes this exchange interesting is that the issue would likely not have even arisen had not Douglas forced the issue, and it gave Douglas an opportunity to lay against Lincoln claims of deception that he may not have had otherwise, or alternatively, that the Republican Party is willing to sell its values out in exchange for a strong enough candidate. This is significant because, often, even mere claims and of untrustworthiness and deception can have a profound impact on how an individual may view a public figure like Lincoln. This can be seen in widespread distrust of Al Gore during his presidential campaign due to his mere affiliation with President Clinton over the Monica Lewinski scandal.

Lincoln’s insistence on the labeling of Douglas as Judge Douglas may have served him poorly in the end, as it is entirely possible - and perhaps likely, given the election results - that the constituency preferred a candidate of experience, clout and otherness (possibly the constituency preferred to elect someone they considered their better to lead and represent them?) than the homespun and relatable nature of Lincoln, whom went to seemingly great lengths in his rhetoric to establish how like the common citizen he was.

Ultimately, it would seem that the electorate was more persuaded and found more value in the character and words of Douglas, as he was re-elected to his Senate seat. Although Douglas’ Freeport Doctrine - and, by extension, popular sovereignty - seems to have been widely regarded as the superior policy regarding slavery in mid-19th century Illinois and perhaps the deciding factor in the election, his methods of delivery and discourse must have been equally as critical as these were the engines by which he convinced the electorate. Regardless of how strong or compelling any given policy may be, it must have an effective speaker in order to convince the masses to enact it - lest it fall to the floor to linger among the doubtless thousands of well-conceived but poorly voiced policy plans and ideas that will never see the light of legislation.

A Note on Works Cited:
All quotations and thoughts used above are based on the transcript of the Freeport Debate, found at:
1. Bartleby.com, Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, http://www.bartleby.com/251/
Additionally, notes taken in class as well as the Wikipedia entry on the Freeport Doctrine (located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeport_Doctrine) were consulted for date and name accuracy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fiction Contest

I entered a short piece for a 100 word flash-fiction contest over on Boing Boing. The theme was, "Found in space." I'm putting my entry here for, uh, posterity.
What astonished them was the sheer lack of anything worth finding in space; for thousands of years, they probed and mined, sent out satellites and men, and waited in anticipation for progressively more complicated sorts of waves to relay news to their home planet. But that news was always the same: we cannot condense and harvest this cloud, nor can we extract enough water for this planet to be at all useful. Still, they expanded, spread out like a cancer in the dark, always searching for a new sector of space that they might be able to feed on.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Worldshift

In the span between late-night and sunrise, something strange happened in the world. It was almost as if every physical law governing existence and interaction shifted almost imperceptibly; in fact, it was imperceptible, because nobody really noticed. But they had a feeling.

Gravity pulled every object ever-so-slightly more down to the world. Cohesian mechanics relaxed by a thousandth of a degree, and motor vehicles, while still functioning effectively, seemed to be somehow .. off. It was difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to explain; most people, when they realized it, saw it only on the periphery of their conscious mind. To explain it would have been like explaining their rationale in getting spooked when at home alone and having to leave for fear of something terrible happening - their was no rationality to it, no system of logic, no good reason. But they knew something was wrong, and they were compelled to act upon it.

Yet no one thought to do anything about this shift in the world. Nuclear physicists puzzled over what the implications of increased output in their power plants meant, and how it might affect safety guidelines. Airline pilots felt that they were slipping in between clouds, their oily surfaces pouring over the aluminum casting of the great Boeings of the sky instead of penetrating them as they had the day before. Researchers attempting to harness quantum mechanics into computer power suddenly managed to successfully develop 5-bit states that actually worked, and worked flawlessly - for the first time, they were able to predict exactly where a neutron would be in its orbit. This was most troubling to them of all, but it shouldn’t have been - somehow, the most difficult aspect of their profession, uncertainty, had been removed from the equation.

I first noticed it when driving to a coffee shop from the bank in my home town. While rounding the curve of Court Street in between Center and Ballenger, I noticed the frame of my car diverge, each mechanical component expanding ever-so-slightly, my seat growing wider as fuel efficiency fell. I could see the other vehicles on the road diverging, too, although they were each doing so to different degrees. Bizarrely, this seemed to have no impact on their performance aside from a vague drifting to the right or to the left on the road. I began to wonder if maybe my insides were diverging, too.

I decided that they were. My general anxiety during the mornings was removed, and the standard nausea that accompanies the span between wakefulness and a caffeinated state was removed - for the first time in months, I felt as if everything was right in the world upon waking up. This troubles me greatly - for if I believe everything is right in the world, but know that it is not, how can I attempt to address any of those wrongs? I am still not sure. My edge - my precious, desperate, anxiety-riddled edge has gone missing, and I am filled with a grave fear of the consequences. Will I still be able to function? Will I be able to stoke the flames of hatred deep within me so that I might find success? Will the loss of what separates me from other men begin to show in my diffusion into the crowds, into the faceless masses?

I do not know.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Report/Criticism: King Leopold's Ghost

The following is an assignment I had for a survey of African History until 1800 class I am currently taking. The assignment quite specifically stated that it was to be a book about African history BEFORE colonialisation, but, well .. my reasons are explained in the text.


[Publishing infoz:
August 7, 2009
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
1999
Mariner Books]

I would like first - and feel it entirely necessary - to explain my decision in choosing Adam Hochschild’s historical survey of the colonization of the Congo called “King Leopold’s Ghost.” Although the assignment requirements are quite clear in stating that the book must have been written concerning the pre-colonial history of Africa, I chose instead to read and work with a text that instead was about the colonization of Africa. This was not decided out of a sense of entitlement of not having to follow the rules, or out of a rebellious, anti-authoritative sense of doing whatever I like, but rather two very specific reasons - one of which is perhaps more valid than the other.

The first reason, and the lesser of the two, is because I had some trouble finding works concerning this period of African history. However, as I spent time looking for publications of pre-colonial Africa, my mind returned to a topic that I spent a great deal of time working with in the last year or so, and one that has been forever lodged in my mind as one of the great evils of human history: colonialisation itself. As an aside, I will forever find it bizarre that regardless of which word-processing software that I use, the word “colonialisation” - regardless of spelling - is flagged as being a non-word. So, moving along.

During the winter semester last year, I took the class that Mary-Jo Kietzman offered that was centered around Tariq Ali - both his fiction and non-fiction - and post-colonial criticism in general. In it, I found an entire breadth of concepts that I hadn’t explicitly encountered before, but nonetheless found to have made a great deal of sense. While the class often focused on fiction - indeed, the majority of book-length reading that was done was on the fictional novels of Ali and Orhan Pamuk - much of the auxiliary reading was on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Steven Harris’ “Postcolonial Criticism,” both of which deal more or less exclusively with the real-world implications and consequences of colonialism.

As stated, I am very drawn to this field of discourse. Additionally, I am a student motivated not by letter-grades but by the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding about the world. (I recognize that my using the word ‘acquisition’ here may be inappropriate in this context) Given this, I look towards projects and undertakings as means of learning in greater depth things which interest me and which I will find useful in my academic career. As a student of literature, narrative, discourse, dialogue and rhetoric, a solid understanding of the events leading up to and the consequences of colonialism are incredibly important. What I am particularly interested in are the compositional structures used by various authors in a variety of works, and how those structures affect the message that the author is trying to express. I also wanted to experiment, in a sense, with reading a piece of colonial history - written from the perspective of someone with an intense hatred for colonialism - as a piece of Orientalist literature/non-fiction. By which I mean, I wondered if Adam Hochschild was almost guilty of helping to enforce the problem that he hoped to shed light on.

On the Style of Writing Presented in “King Leopold’s Ghost”

Adam Hochschild is a writing professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and has written many books concerning the histories and perspectives of many peoples, so he is not without the proper credentials to write a book such as “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His style is engaging and thorough, providing for a highly-detailed yet easily-readable account of the development of the Congo. He often includes details about the personal lives of the figures he deals with an attempt to humanize them and shed light on their decisions. Unfortunately, this often means that he creates judgments of his own which are then forced on the reader - for better or worse, Hochschild makes little attempt at retaining a more journalistic, objective viewpoint.

This problem first manifests in his descriptions of one of the central players in the conquest of the Congo; the explorer, vagrant, brutal commander and evil-bastard-in-general, Henry Morton Stanley. He charts his life as first a young boy repeatedly rejected by those typically tasked with caring, and one that became a sensationalist, yellow journalist whom characterized the wars the United States had with the western plains Indians. However, he generally describes him in almost benevolent tones; the reader’s first introduction of him is one built on sympathy and a recognition of his intelligence and beautiful handwriting. Although he is later disparaged as being, in general, a terrible villain, Hochschild gives him more initial praise than the other central player of the book and development of the Congo, Leopold II.

Instead of the flowery, almost uplifting narrative that Hochschild provided for Stanley, Leopold II is generally described exclusively in negative terms. As a child, his fixation with numbers above all else and his cleverness - portrayed as a fox - is emphasized constantly, as is his social awkwardness. Although some of these attributes were also applied to Stanley, they were given to him in a benevolent fashion, reasoning that he had a difficult childhood and that his flaws should possibly be seen as charming distractions to the rugged exterior of the man he would become. Leopold II, however, was never illustrated in a positive manner; although Hochschild clearly and repeatedly acknowledges Leopold II’s incredible intellect and deft social maneuvering, his awkwardness at a younger stage of his life was instead used to paint him as a wretched boy, only barely worthy of the title that he would receive.

As an example, when writing about Leopold II’s moves to acquire stock in the Suez Trading Company and in efforts to acquire a colony all his own, Hochschild writes,
“Leopold’s letters and memos, forever badgering someone about acquiring a colony, seem to be in the voice of a person starved for love as a child and now filled with an obsessive desire for an emotional substitute, the way someone becomes embroiled in an endless dispute with a brother or sister over an inheritance, or with a neighbor over a property boundary.” (p. 38)
While this might seem to be merely an author’s mental image and understanding of the reasons why a certain figure did a certain thing, the prose is nonetheless worded in a fashion intended to sway the opinion of the reader. Specifically, I am referring to his use of “badgering,” a word that, when used in this context, is never positive - indeed, it is always a negative connotation. Why Hochschild chose to use a word such as this - and others, as this is but one example of lexical issues that crop up repeatedly - is beyond my capacity to state with effectiveness. That said, it mostly just seems that he has a bias that he is unwilling to go to any lengths whatsoever to provide. I find this a strange stance to take as a professor working for a graduate school of journalism, a discipline that has built its foundation on objectivism.

His attempts at psychology feel, if anything, out of place. While Hochschild may very well have studied psychology while in university, may have even received a degree in it, his commentary revolving around it feels nonetheless to be that of an amateur. I find this almost entertaining given a line delivered in the Introduction of the book; “However, with my college lecture notes on [Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”] filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes, and inward vision ...” It would seem that amateur psychoanalysis is something of a regular theme for Hochschild.

Which isn’t to say that his conjectures into the discipline aren’t entertaining; they are. They provide color to characters that I imagine would be traditionally painted in shades of grey, and make “King Leopold’s Ghost” a more entertaining work to read in general. I’m just not sure that they really add anything relevant to the dialogue, and I find the forcing of the author’s opinion on me during reading to be troublesome.

On the Question of Orientalism

One of the questions that I had after I had found this book was whether or not Hochschild himself was guilty of Orientalising the Congo - and I believe that the answer is more or less “yes.” It’s a difficult thing for any western-educated writer or intellectual to escape from, and great care must be taken to ensure its avoidance. Orientalism, coined by Edward Said in his book bearing the same name, is essentially the use of language to describe cultures and peoples of the Orient - essentially everything east of the eastern borders of Europe and south of the Mediterranean - in a way that permits the mental palatability of colonialisation. Examples of this from the figures in question are found throughout “King Leopold’s Ghost,” most often when Hochschild is quoting Leopold II or Stanley. Indeed, Said and Harris both actually quote speeches given by Leopold II when he was working towards his colonial prospect.

Leopold II essentially justified his colonial aspirations of the Congo as ones of altruism and benevolence, seeking to make the ‘uncivilized’ of the Congo into good, civilized Christians. An example, given at the first meeting of the organization that Leopold II built for the purposes of justifying his colonialism (initially mapping it), follows;
“To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade of this century of progress.” (p. 44)
This sentence alone is rife with what were really quite clever language machinations; his use of the word ‘crusade,’ which was always an attempt at Westernizing the Muslim east, infers tones of righteousness and divine ordinance. To characterize not merely the people of the Congo but the entire region as having been engulfed in darkness - and to then suggest that white, European powers were the only beings capable of providing that light - was not only a brilliant piece of rhetoric, but an incredibly disgusting one, suggesting that the people of the Congo are utterly inferior of taking care of themselves.

Incidentally, even spelling the name of the country that would become, ironically named, The Free Congo State, as Congo is Orientalizing it - according to the text, even though the people of the Congo had no written language, the sound its inhabitants made when referring to it was much closer to a K than a C. However, it was Anglicized, and made into a word appearing more compatible with the English language in general.

Unfortunately, Hochschild sometimes also slips into these lexical traps. While he never refers to the Congo as being backwards or really even alien, an almost imperceptible flavor of The Other arises whenever he speaks of the region. That one of his only real sources of information about the region was a native of the area - and one removed from the time on conflict by several hundred years - is troubling. Even more troubling is it that this man - the leader of the Congo when the Portuguese first began exploring and enslaving the area - quickly converted to Christianity, and learned to read and write in highly fluent English.

Granted, I cannot imagine that there were a great many voices from the region during the time which could have spoken out; they were being enslaved under the veil of Leopold II’s fraternity and human-betterment. Hochschild does address this early on in his work; “There was no written language in the Congo when Europeans first arrived ... we have dozens of memoirs by the territory’s white officials ... Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence.” (p. 5)

There is a hero to the story Hochschild presents, however, even though he may be a westerner that was genuinely trying to aid the people of the Congo. Edmund Dene Morel worked incredibly hard to expose the terrible evils which Leopold II’s Free Congo State regime inflicted on the people, and generated international attention enough to Leopold II’s ruse and deception that he had an enormous impact on its development. However, Hochschild returns again to a writing style that is clearly much more favorable to some figures than others. As an example,
“Morel was all of a piece: his thick handlebar mustache and tall, barrel-chested frame exuded forcefulness; his dark eyes blazed with indignation. The millions of words that would flow from his pain over the remainder of his life came in a handwriting that races across the page in cold, forward-slanting lines, flattened by speed, as if they had no time to spare in reaching their destination.” (p. 187)
Instead of the damning language used for an early Leopold II, or the understanding, almost paternal tone adopted when speaking about Stanley, Hochschild instead portrays Morel as something even more than a firebrand - he paints of him the very image of a justified revolutionary, correct in all actions and entire righteous in mind.

Conclusion

I contrast these concepts - of Orientalism, lexical slanting, Othering and so on - with those found in the two textbooks for class. As it would be far too easy to find quotes almost entirely neutral inside of either textbook, I will avoid doing so, as the intent of the texts and of “King Leopold’s Ghost” are clearly different and to do so would be unfair. What I found fascinating about the two texts was a style of characterization and description that I’d never really previously encountered when reading about Africa; they each write about the continent as if it is normal. Not normal to the standards of the west, not normal for the middle east, but normal unto itself simply because it is. While they each sometimes sound almost defensive of Africa (understandably, I think), they portray it in a light entirely alien to that found in Hochschild’s work. Although I think that each perspective is interesting, I believe that I will prefer returning to the text for information about the continent - even if Hochschild’s capacity to incite the reader, to make him feel something - anger, hate, hostility, anything - far eclipses that of the authors of the textbooks for class. Sometimes, I just want the information - sometimes, I want to be allowed to form my own opinions.

Fun With Grammar/The Trouble With King's English

Quick preface: I posted this on my journal over at OK Cupid, and as I feel that it's a pretty important concept, I'm gonna repost it here because, well, it's my blog and I can do whatever I want with it.

Aside from phrases such as, “I don’t know what to put in these things/You can’t summarize a person in a single paragraph,” the most common message that I read in people’s profiles on Okay Cupid is something along the lines of, “If you can’t type/speak/conjugate/hyphenate/etc correctly, then do not message me.” I find this to be very troubling.

In linguistic surveys, people from across the country (the United States, anyway) typically identify people from the Midwest as speaking the most “correct” form of English. Specifically, those people from Michigan. I imagine that folks from the southwest, the UK, and other parts of the English-speaking world (sorry guys, that wasn’t my fault) would disagree with this. And hey, I’m from Michigan and pretty much disagree with this. Just the same, the perceptions of people determine what is correct and what is not.

That last sentence was important; what I mean by that is that degrees of ‘correctness’ change from region to region, and only due to mass-communication and quick-traveling methods can people as widely dispersed as those in the United States even have a conception, on a gigantically national basis, of what ‘correct’ on this level is. Just the same - as bizarre as it seems to me at times - we do. It is known as the King’s English.

The King’s English changes from region to region. It’s different in the UK, in Michigan (where I am from), in South Africa, in China. Note that ‘King’s English’ does not necessarily mean English itself, but rather the form of whatever predominant language of a region is that is spoken by the power base. The actual form of that power base does not matter; in America, that base is generally that of the government and the voice of media on a national scale. Generally, this refers to a specific dialect of a language rather than a specific language.

When people write or say things like, “I cannot tolerate people that cannot distinguish between ‘you are/you’re/your’ or refuse to use them correctly,” what they are really saying is that they are not willing to engage in discourse with people that refuse, for whatever reason, to conform with the language structures of the predominant power base. Ironically, I see this often in the profiles of people that claim they are unique, anti-conformist, original in every way possible, and entirely themselves - and damn what ‘the man’ tells them to do.

Often accompanying this is a bit of explanation; generally, these accuse people that fail to capitalize every proper noun and conjugate flawlessly as being lazy or stupid. In real-life, this is tantamount to racism; Ebonics, as a dialect, is every bit as complicated and nuanced as any of those found in the English language, and follows a similar structure of rules. This is why, although an individual removed from an Ebonics-speaking community may have tremendous difficulty understanding Ebonics, individuals from those communities have no trouble whatsoever understanding each other.

So why is that someone choosing to write in a more Internet-friendly fashion is immediately thought of as stupid, lazy, or unworthy? Although whether or not Internet-speak/leetspeak/etc is a dialect or not is difficult to determine and is a question for another essay, I believe it to still be important to consider. What’s to say that a person that uses “your” to replace “you are” (instead of “you’re,” for those of you keeping track at home) isn’t actually following a system of their or their communities’ own choosing that is every bit as rule-based as your flawless English?

This sort of discounts those individuals that genuinely do not know how to conjugate a verb and lumps them into the “more intelligent than you might like to think” category automatically, and that isn’t fair. It also is not what I am setting out to do. Just the same, I fail to see that people that are incapable, for whatever reason, of writing ‘correctly’ are inherently stupid. Is the failing of a school system the fault of the individual that had no choice but to attend? Is it somehow their fault that the raw lack of emphasis on grammar after middle school allowed them to slip through the cracks of high school without ever mastering the more nuanced bits of the language?

I don’t really think so. Sure, I prefer to read words written by people that can effectively produce King’s English; it’s easier on the eyes, mind and heart, but simply because they cannot doesn’t mean that they don’t have something valid to contribute to mine or your life, or that they couldn’t have a profound influence on us in some other way. John Milton, the guy that wrote Paradise Lost, dictated the entire thing to his daughters; someone that types five words per minute, has no understanding of conjugation or sentence structure, and couldn’t spell ‘cat’ with a dictionary could compose something on their own more effectively than Milton could.

And yet we revere Milton as a visionary.

Were he physically capable of composing the work on his own, could he have spelt everything correctly and kept the pacing/phrasing/grammatical structures found within the text the same? I don’t know. Is it important? Not in the least - because we have Paradise Lost and, honestly, that’s all that matters.

I guess that what I’m getting at is that the next time you receive a message or an IM or something from someone that writes, “Hey whats up” and fails to conjugate what+is correctly, don’t ignore them. Don’t discount them. Consider, at least, giving them a chance. Maybe they are stupid. Maybe they really are profoundly lazy. But hey - maybe just maybe, they’re a Ph.D candidate in particle physics that decided to dedicate more time understanding how existence functions as a whole rather than mastering the intricacies of composition.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Website!

I began the process of building a website the other day. A blog, I guess - I decided that for what I was trying to do, Blogger and, to an extent, Wordpress - an excellent web dev. kit on its own - just wasn't enough. So I paid my room mate to use some of his service space, and registered the domain. The general layout and format is just about complete with a few more kinks to work out, but the first couple of articles are up.

It's about computer games and beer!

You can find it here:

40 Ounces, 1 Game


You should totally visit it and leave me some sweet comments!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pretentious

I'm taking a playwriting class right now. I'm enjoying it much more than I thought it would. To be honest, as much as I'm enjoying the actual writing process (even though it's entirely devoid of anything but a first draft ..), my favorite part are the theatre activities/games or whatever we play at the start of each class. For example, today we were told to imagine we were a political pundit, leader, or something that generates national news headlines, and we had to come up with an arbitrary point to present. Then, someone had to disagree with it. For example, I said that the only way to lower the crime rate in Flint is to force all of the poor people to move out. Troubling was it that several people thought I was being serious - but still, an entertaining game.

One of my classmates - a neighbor - asked me for a ride home today. He's an interesting person that I enjoy watching more than actually interacting with - mostly, because he likes to say and do things to generate attention/reaction, and I don't do terribly well in those sorts of encounters. I've always been curious as to what he actually thinks about certain topics - he's so driven towards eliciting an intense response that it's hard to get a handle on it. I imagine that's part of the purpose, whether conscious or un. Anyway, he's been a friend of sorts for awhile, although my relationship with him was initially provoked pretty much entirely as a way of ensuring I retained some connection to a girl I use to be in love with. This is no longer the case, although seeing her car in his driveway last weekend was kind of weird.

I tried to keep the conversation on the drive home - less than five minutes - lightweight, as I was tired and wanted to be at home, basking in the comforting glow of my enormous computer monitor and the joys of THE INTERNET. We talked mostly about random things, and at some point, I mentioned that my primary goal in life was to survive entirely from the written word, and that I didn't really care what format - for now - that that word happened to take. I then mentioned that, ideally, I'd be able to survive writing entirely about video games. This is where the conversation took a strange turn.

He then more or less accused me of wanting to produce irrelevant things that had no bearing on anybody. I agree with this - although I plan to stay active in academic circles, my heart and soul are in video games, regardless of whether or not it will have an impact on anybody's life. I also have absolutely no problem with this - I'll contribute, as I can, to the growth of both academic and social culture in my life, but hey: in the end, my happiness is all that ultimately matters. So long as my chosen lifestyle doesn't fuck up that of other people, then I see absolutely no failing. I responded with my usual response when anybody tells me something is irrelevant:

"Everything is irrelevant if you zoom out far enough."

Most people understand this to mean that, ultimately, I am a nihilist, and don't usually dig deeper into the concept - which is a shame, as I'd love to be challenged on that and have a good argument over it, but hey. My friend did not. Instead, he provided an entirely unexpected response: he called me pretentious.

"What do you mean, that makes me pretentious?"

"That's just a really pretentious thing to say, you know?"

First, lets look at the definition of "Pretentious": (thanks, dictionary.com)
1. full of pretense or pretension.
2. characterized by assumption of dignity or importance.
3. making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.

I'm a pretty low-key kind of guy (it feels weird to refer to myself as any kind of guy ..) and generally acknowledge my own self-importance when it is demanded of me. I might be an asshole that doesn't like anybody, but I'm generally not the pretentious, academic/literary/etc-elitist sort, so this comment confused me. Isn't nihilism kind of the opposite of being pretentious? I kind of think so, but again - I'd love for someone to argue with me about this.

Why I am still thinking about this I am not sure. It wasn't meant as an insult, I think. My friend - and his .. well, his posse, often call things pretentious. As far as I can tell, their determination for calling something pretentious requires two things: that what you said might have been a good idea, and that they were probably incapable of it themselves. I used to get a kick out of hanging out with them, as they threw around the word 'pretentious' all the time - it felt like being called a weiner in second grade or something, as if they didn't really understand what the word meant.

I'm an English major. A lot of us are irritating, self-indulgent and pretentious fucks. But that's just the thing - he's a writer, an actor, a reasonable intelligent person. He's a grandiose sort when he's speaking, demanding attention in the same way Brad Pitt does (he sort of looks like him and speaks similarly) whenever he enters a scene. Yet I .. well, I don't think most people notice when I enter a room, and I get spoken overtop of rather frequently. I prefer things this way - I'd rather observe than interact. Yet what really confuses me is the irony of his calling me pretentious when it seems like almost every action he executes is designed to draw attention. Isn't that a bit self-important, as if he's saying, "Hey! Look at me! I'm about to do something REALLY SIGNIFICANT AND YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS IT OR ELSE, WELL, WHO KNOWS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN BUT I WOULDN'T WANT TO BE YOU."

That's kind of exaggeration, but only slightly. You'd be surprised.

I should probably mention that his group of friends loves to throw that word around - "Dude, you're pretentious for double-hitting that blunt" and "Quit being so pretentious, we don't want to read your story" are common enough sorts of lines to hear in his home. There's something kind of disturbing going on here (oh, I just found out: if you spell "disturbing" wrong, and right click on it to get the right spelling, the first choice that isn't the word "disturbing" is "masturbating." Awesome), mostly because I find that particular group of friends to be among the most arrogant and self-important of any that attend my school. There's a beautiful, wonderful irony in their designating everything but themselves as pretentious.

But hey, I guess if you zoom out far enough, pretty much everybody is pretentious.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Section 9 Sign



I took a picture of this because I think it's pretty interesting. It's for that Section 9 movie that's coming out pretty soon, and I'm pretty excited for it. Just the same, this image - taken from over the bathroom at Showcase Cinemas West in Flint, Michigan - illustrates a potential issue I have with the film. Although it's really a question:

Will people more readily sympathize with something clearly and radically different than they are than with normal people?

The sign is pretty clearly a play on the segregationist history of the United States; white bathrooms, black bathrooms, etc. Are they actually trying to channel this question? I dunno. That the film, from the trailers, appears to have been shot somewhere in war-torn Africa, I find my question to be even more valid. My bet: people will get more riled up about violence against aliens, and find themselves more passionately inclined towards their cause, than they ever will about real-life genocide and the horrors occurring all over the world in the present-day.

I wish I didn't feel that way.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thomas verdict: GIVE US 2 MILLION DOLLARS YOU STOLE 24 SONGS

Ah, well, the news is in: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/06/jammie-thomas-retrial-verdict.ars

I'm not surprised by this verdict in the least, and I'm not sure that anyone following the repeated legal saga of Jammie Thomas is, either. I am a little disturbed, though.

I can't help but wonder if this woman wasn't just martyred. Of course, the RIAA will never see the two million dollars that the jury awarded them today - she said as much herself - but it's not like a lower-middle-class mother could ever pay a sum like that. What disturbs me is the behavior of her lawyer. Kiwi Camara, the lead of her legal team, spent the last couple of weeks essentially showboating around his legal defense and the exotic concepts he planned to employ in court; unfortunately, it didn't seem to do a damn bit of good. Sure, he cross-examined the prosecution's witnesses, and even had newly-introduced evidence (the discovery of a log file detailing the replacement of the hard drive the files were on) thrown out of court. Yet .. he didn't call a single witness.

By no means am I legal expert, but .. really? They couldn't come up with a single person to explain how it's possible for a woman to have her online identity spoofed? Sure, the evidence against her was pretty thorough - they had her mac address tied to the Kazaa account, had her pretty much locked up with the tereastarr username, and made clear that she replaced her hard drive AFTER she was subpoenaed - but it's almost like her team was only barely trying.

Which is all the more disturbing considering the verdict: the jury hit her up for 80 grand/song, hundreds of times more than she was originally ordered to pay per infringement. Her first guilty verdict, which was thrown out due to faulty jury directions (more specifically, the judge felt that, in the end, "making available" did not equal "stealing and distributing," so he forced a retrial), stoked a good deal of grass-roots anger. And perhaps rightfully so - there was no way the single mother could have ever paid off her original debt. So if the 30 grand or so of her original verdict pissed people off .. what will 2 MILLION dollars do?

Hopefully, I'm being a crazy paranoid fuck here, but it really looks like this verdict was almost orchestrated on the behalf of the defense. Camara was a student of the figure that currently crests the copyfight movement in the United States, the law professor Lawrence Lessig. He's pretty well known at this point for what essentially amounts to zealotry, and his students have been accused as much as well. Right now, he's trying to get suits like this thrown out of court, arguing that file sharing is fair use. We're several decades away from that ever being passed into law, but .. isn't it interesting that this verdict so thoroughly paints the RIAA even more as villains, and people like Jammie Thomas even more the attacked and molested citizen?

I guess what I'm trying to say is .. I'm not sure anymore. I believe in the copyleft and destroying the concept of intellectual-property more than almost anything, but I'm chilled to think at what cost such liberties might be obtained. The idea here is freedom, flexibility, creativity and innovation - not bloody winning. If we have to kill off the people that need this movement to succeed the most, then we're no better than any other shitty political group and have defeated the point entirely. Come on, guys: we don't need martyrs. We need heroes.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Lists

Personal use/record-keeping: list of publications submitted to and which bits were published.

1. Broadside:
Christmas Lights
Swordsong (published - issue 4)
Bad Habits
Never was a Gambling Man (published - issue 5)

Submitted 7/26:
I - Held
II - Elevation Level
III - Almost as if Alive
The Frontier
Spare Some Change, Man?
Grocery Shopping
The Other
[self-congratulatory note: my room mate Garrett, who knows and sees, as a result of his dating his girlfriend, the guy that handles all poetry for Broadside. He's a professor at my university. He told Garrett to tell me to not stop writing poetry because it was good. Go me.]

Submitted 10/6:
Pissgrid
Knives
Failing in Love
Stairwell
Ataxia
More in Dreaming

2. Prairie Margins:
Ataxia (published)

3. Sigma Tau Delta:
At What Cost? (published)
4:01am (published)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poetry Grade Controversy omgomg

So I've been having a grade dispute with one of my professors, and I thought I would chronicle it here. My efforts awarded me with an additional 2.5 points spread between two assignments, with the class having a total of 100 points. This may or may not make this a significant number, but as I said to my room mates, it isn't necessarily about being right, or even hitting that elusive 4.0 grade - it's about using my institution-taught capacity to think cleverly and argue against the institution. Full details below. Note also that this is mostly for posterity.


First - the assignment description (Light formatting was done inside of the quotes).

"These five exercises are akin to gardening: planting a seed in good
soil, watering it, weeding it, and allowing it to grow naturally. The
process combines summary, analysis and response but I’m not asking for
these pieces to be strictly “academic” – in other words, they can be
“informal” in the sense that I invite you to respond personally to the
ideas of each writer and to connect each essay to your own work and
the work of the class. You may find yourself extrapolating and
traveling outward on a tributary. That’s okay, as long as I can
follow your thinking. Here are some guidelines:

Aim for about 750 words on each one (two or three pages).
Begin with one central idea from the essay that grabs you or relates
to your own process or life as a writer. Resist the urge to summarize
only – any chump can do that. I want you to consider each author’s
ideas and filter it through your own understanding and experience. You
may find some biographical information about the author to be useful
and elucidating – a bit of background research could be pleasurable
and useful.
Nonetheless, include several direct quotes from the author and be sure
to attribute clearly and gracefully. Convince me you’ve actually read
the piece and convince me you understand it or at least wrestled with
its “controlling ideas,” theses or central contentions.
If you’re stumped as to how to develop the annotation, consider the
following questions: How does this essay connect to other things you
know about poetry? What charms you most about this author’s ideas?
What do you agree with? Why? What do you disagree with? Why? How
might you use these ideas in your own work? What confuses you about
this author’s ideas? What feels “new” to you (or for you) in this
essay? How does this essay connect with others we’ve read? How do
the ideas of the essay affect you emotionally? What have other people
said about this author’s ideas?

(See back for initial list of essays for consideration)

Initial list of essays for consideration: I’ll be offering these to
you as we move through the semester. Some are available online; some
in collections in my possession.

“Filthy Lucre” (Wiman)
“The Limit” (Wiman)
“An Idea of Order”(Wiman)
“Can Poetry Matter?” (Gioia)
“Art of Poetry”(Horace)
“On the Sublime” (Longinus) – worth double credit
“One Body: Some Notes on Form” (Hass)
“Writing the Reader’s Life” (Dobyns)
“An Interview with Paris Review” (Larkin)"

The two annotations that would lead to the grade dispute are as follows:

Annotation #3: Obama, Machiavelli, and the Prince

"A bit of forewarning: as I’ve spent the entirety of the last two weeks writing about purely academic, literary concepts, I’d really like to explore something a little bit more political. Due to this, I’ve chosen to write about a chapter found in Howard Zinn’s Passionate Declarations, which is a rather large book, and can really best be summed up as a damnation of U.S. foreign and internal policy, as well as something of an attack against the ideologies that prop it up. That isn’t to say it’s anti-American; rather, it’s pro-humanist, and against the various policies that the U.S. has enacted that has been against the bettering of humanity as a whole. It’s kind of difficult to describe it succinctly, and it also doesn’t help that I haven’t read it in its entirety for well over a year.

That said, I did read the chapter called ‘Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy.’ Early in the chapter, Zinn lays out a variety of theories and political concepts that Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian statesman/political theorist, laid out. Chief among them is the notion that the means justify the ends, provided that the ends are good unto themselves. This concept has been used repeatedly throughout history to justify all manner of atrocities, including but not limited to, the bombing of Cambodia whom, when we were bombing, we were, officially, at peace with, and of pretty much conquering the entirety of Latin America for economic gain.

Arguments are often made that the actions taken south of Mexico were to preserve national security and to fend off the communists, but Zinn argues, persuasively, otherwise; he says that these actions, such as the Bay of Pigs incident and, before the socialist uprising of Fidel Castro, the installment of the despot Batista in Cuba, that we enacted not to stop communism - specifically, Russian communism, which could not have realistically invaded the U.S. from socialist Cuba, or any other part of South America (he cites the inability of the Russians to win a war with Afghanistan - on their own border - as proof of this) - but, as stated, to secure the economic interests of the U.S. He quotes a U.S. senator (unnamed, unfortunately) who, when asked about the U.S. essentially going to war with Panama over access to its canal, said simply, “We stole it fair and square.”

Zinn moves forward to describe another concept critical to Machiavellian politics; that of the Fox and the Lion. The Fox, he says, must deceive both his enemy and his people; lacking the raw power necessary to subdue them by force, he must convince them that his ways are the best ways. The Lion, he says, must alternatively crush his enemies, sometimes because, simply, he can, but most often because they are aware of the deception enacted by enemies.

Zinn extends this concept further, and labels “Advisors” as critical elements of both Lion and Fox methodologies. He uses the example of Henry Kissinger as a primary Fox - he was primarily responsible for the bombings of Cambodia, and has been implicated in a great many atrocities committed in southern Asia. Most importantly, it was, again, Kissinger that was responsible - not the Prince that he played Advisor to. By permitting Advisors to be the great movers of potential evil, it shields the Prince - who must always attend to either the love or the domination of his people - from damages incurred by actions done by the Advisor. This is what gives rise to the term, “plausible deniability,” and has been used throughout American history to commit a great many evils.

At this point, I would like to move away somewhat from the text and delve into current matters of politics. As we are all aware at this point, Barack Obama has become President, ushering in - we hope, and were promised - an era of progressive change. I’m tempted to even capitalize change because it was such a massively Big Idea, but is change what the American people are receiving?

Last week, Obama appointed the fifth RIAA - the Recording Industry Association of America - to the Department of Justice, most notably the guy that took Tanya Anderson to trial for sharing a handful of mp3s online. I cannot find, at the moment, his name, but just the same, the RIAA has been responsible for a series of lawsuits against individuals for sharing a variety of music files online. Most often, these were cases involving college students, single mothers, and other normal people - these are not wealthy people, nor are they people attempting to attain wealth by distributing music online. The RIAA sued them, in some cases - Tanya Anderson’s included - for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Somehow, these corporations felt that this was fair.

By appointing these RIAA lawyers to the DoJ, Obama has not demonstrated the Change that he was elected to produce - rather, it appears that he is pandering instead to the major businesses of our nation. This somewhat digresses from the Machiavellian concepts laid out earlier, and indeed, will be dissimilar for now - but what stance will Obama himself take when these lawyers begin using their cruel and evil tactics on people that deserve nowhere near as harsh of a treatment as they will receive? I imagine, he will say, that he has plausible deniability - that the DoJ lawyers were individually responsible, and not him. I seem to recall DoJ Chief Gonzales using this exact argument when allegations were brought against him. This is not the Change that I voted for.

Further damning, the Obama administration has invoked the ‘State Secret’ privelage multiple times since coming to office, most recently to protect both the federal government and the telecom companies from being sued by the American people for violating their Constitutional rights to privacy. The particularly painful part is that Obama himself, both before and during his Presidential bid, fought against exactly this kind of treatment of the American people. Again, this is not the Change that we voted for - rather, this is a continuation of the Bush/Cheney policies that have all but damned our nation in the eyes of the world. The following quote comes from a Salon.com article that I found interesting, although possibly uncited, asking exactly the same question I have posited;
“Does it represent a continuation of the Bushies' obsession with putting secrecy and executive power above basic constitutional rights? Is it a sweeping power grab by the executive branch, that sets set a broad and dangerous precedent for future cases by asserting that the government has the right to get lawsuits dismissed merely by claiming that state secrets are at stake, without giving judges any discretion whatsoever?
In a word, yes.”1

So, at the least, it’s not just me that’s upset by this. I remember, before the actual election and during the campaign, speaking with some friends about this; “Man, if he fucks this up, then our entire generation will be as jaded as Kennedy’s after they shot him.” I’m beginning to fear that this is happening, and quite faster than anyone could have anticipated - although Obama has made many conciliatory moves on the international front, he remains positively damned on the home front. My fear in this is that he will continue hiding behind the Bush secrecy doctrine - why is this a fear? Because there can be no great Advisor, in the Machiavellian sense, than a policy that is utterly immune to prosecution."

Professor's response:

Grade: 1/5

Daniel, your writing is smart and lively but it's not about poetry. These annotations are supposed to be about poetry. No matter how well you wrote them, you missed the point of the assignment.

Annotation #5 - On the Obfuscation of Language

"Essay source: Language Myths. Ed. Laurie, Peter Trudgill. Penguin Books, London, 1998.

Depending on the order that you read this and the short essay composed for the final portfolio, you may be aware that one of my underlying goals in all of my education is the an understanding of words; not merely meanings, or how they interrelate with one another, but how they impact and influence people. An important aspect of this is whether or not people view not only words, but also the changing of words, as being particularly valid/correct. This concept is hit upon in a pair of essays found in Language Myths, a book that I forgot that I owned until looking around for something to write on for this annotation. Almost appropriately, the essays I will be focusing on - The Meaning of Words Should not be Allowed to Change, by Peter Trudgill, and America is Ruining the English Language, by John Algeo, are found, respectively, as the first and last essays in the book.

The first essay examines a variety of words that have changed over the last, oh, five hundred years - which, really, includes just about all of them. Trudgill attacks the notion that there is really a wrong way to use a word, and asserts that, so long as meaning and intent are clear, that it doesn’t particularly matter if they’re being used correctly. Indeed, he sums up his thesis towards the latter portion of the essay; “When is misuse not misuse? When everybody does it.” (Trudgill p. 7), and further, he states that “The fact is that none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means.” (Trudgill p. 7)

He uses a variety of words and phrases to demonstrate that, so long as intent and meaning are clear, that misuse isn’t terribly relevant - although he doesn’t state as much, he essentially views this as the further potential evolution of the English language. Among others, he explores usage of the words “uninterested” and “disinterested,” and explains how people use these words often interchangeably even though they have different meanings, and a little bit of how this may have occured; “They have, perhaps, heard the word disinterested and, not being aware of the meaning ‘neutral, unbiased’, they have started using it as the negative form of interested in the more recent sense.” (Trudgill p. 3) I found the essay pretty convincing although, to be fair, I already agreed with his standpoint.

The second essay, America is Ruining the English Language, explores the idea made clear in the title. He says that it isn’t, and his argument stems almost entirely from the following quotation: “Present-day British is no closer to that earlier form than present-day American is.” (Algeo p. 179) Even if it was a bastardized version, it wouldn’t really matter; “It is, in the great Anglo-American tradition, our God-given right to have our own opinions and to take it or leave it when it comes to style in couture, diet, entertainment, religion and language.” (Algro p. 178) What he is basically saying here - and, indeed, alludes to later in agreeance with Trudgill, is that language means whatever we, the users and creators of it, want it to mean and in general agree that it means. To quote again Trudgill; “Words do not mean what we as individuals might wish them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean.” (Trudgill p. 8)

I accept both of these arguments as essentially a tacit endorsement of the abuses I so thoroughly enjoy inflicting on the English language. One of the concepts that has arisen from two writers in my Composition Theory class is that of the writer, student or author developing his or her own truth and, so long as the meaning is made clear to the reader, then that truth may stand pretty much as given. Of course, this becomes a little bit more complicated in poetry - one of the struggles that I’ve encountered is that just because I want something to mean something, doesn’t mean that you, or anyone else, will get that meaning from it. It’s something that I’m trying to work with, but my insistence on obfuscating things probably doesn’t help.

So, a set of procedural goals: to develop an archaic, complicated, and vague style that is somewhat-easily understood by my audience, and therefore valid. The trouble: the understood level of intelligence of my readers, and hoping that it’s relatively high so I can be abstract, and hope they’ll be willing to dig the thing apart to extract some sort of hidden meaning. A boy can dream."

Professor's response:

Grade: 2.5/5

"At least here you got around to poetry in the last two paragraphs, but again, this isn't really what I wanted you to do with the annotations. See comments on #3. I wish you'd have checked with me about these alternate articles."

Later that evening, I sent my professor the following request:

"Okay, moving along. I had some concerns with the scores that I received for my annotations - as they were already late, I understand if neither of the following are opportunities for me, but nonetheless I would like them to be considered. Here are what I hope my options are: A) the most straightforward, in which you allow me to rewrite, at least the annotation that was scored at 1/5, for even partial credit, or B) you allow me to present an argument for why both annotations should be scored higher - I have a series in mind that I believe are fairly compelling.

Thanks again,

Daniel A. Russ"

and her response, which came early the next morning:

"Obviously you were closer on the second one, as I indicated on the comments. But I had provided essays I wanted you to consider that touched on issues relevant to our class; if you selected others, you should have consulted with me first. As noted, your comments were smart and literate but not on the topics I wanted you to consider: at the least, you needed to make the links to the themes of the class clearer. This was an advanced poetry writing class -- I wanted you to consider issues of craft and to use poems/poetry as the substance of your discussions. I'm sure if you'd selected essays more pertinent to writing poetry, you'd have been equally articulate and received an appropiately higher score. My decision stands."

I don't really deal well with language like this from a professor of, of all things, English and poetry, so I sent her the following:

"I guess that the primary problem that I have with those grades is that nowhere in the assignment description does it say that I /have/ to use the provided essays - it merely says that the “[following list are an] initial list of essays for your consideration.” Further, one of the annotations that I received a 4.5/5 on - “Wiman on Milton in Guatemala” - wasn’t on the list.
Your second problem with the essays, that each essay was to be about poetry whereas mine were not, is also somewhat troublesome for me - nowhere in the assignment description was the rule, “This must be about poetry” laid out. Following, I’ll lay out what the requirements - quoted from the sheet say:
+“The process combines summary, analysis and response”
+“Aim for about 750 words on each one (two or three pages).”
+“Begin with one central idea from the essay that grabs you or relates to your own process or life as a writer.”
+“I want you to consider each author’s ideas and filter it through your own understanding and experience.”
+“ Convince me you’ve actually read the piece and convince me you understand it or at least wrestled with
its “controlling ideas,” theses or central contentions.”

The only actual mention of “poetry” made for the assignment guidelines are found in the “If you’re stumped, use these for potential thesis’” section - all of the rest, that fall in the ‘required’ section of assignment document, relate to “your process and life as a writer.” To return to my Wiman piece, only brief mention is made of poetry - it was much more about philosophy, theology, and EXPERIENCE than it was about the craft.

Finally - without actually arguing anything about a specific piece of writing - I’ve spent the vast majority of the semester breaking rules. My Lewis Carol Carol is an excellent example of that - I didn’t even read the assignment, but received a nearly perfect score on that unit of poems. You called it, among other things, a fun linguistic exercise - similar to how you called the pieces provided for Annotations 3 and 5 ‘smart and lively’. I really can’t help but feel like I’m being punished for thinking and acting slightly outside of the box, to use the cliche - more things relate to “my process and life as a writer” than just poetry - and although I’ve come to love poetry, I’m more than that, and felt that I should approach my final annotations with ‘getting better at something I don’t have experience doing’ than repeating assignments that I’d already completed and could have written with my hands tied behind my back.

While I can accept that, thematically, each annotation should have been about poetry - even thought it was never clearly stated as such - I have a hard time believing that Annotation 3 is really worth only 1/5. It followed each of the other directions that were laid out in the assignment document, and I .. lack the words to explain how I feel about a single, unstated ‘requirement’ being worth literally 80% of a grade.

Concerning the actual assignment rules, that’s about all I have - as I said, this doesn’t include any arguments specific to the annotations themselves. I have several in mind for each, and why they are both critical, in a sense, to not merely the arts themselves, but specifically to poetry."

A few hours later, I received both a grade adjustment and the following pair of messages, sent within moments of each other with no response from myself in the meantime:

New score for Annotation 3: 2.5/5
New score for Annotation 5: 3.5/5

"Because of your precocious and persistent arguments, I've slightly adjusted your scores. Don't push me further. It was a poetry class; you wrung about as much out of working outside the box as you should reasonably expect. Be grateful.

...

P.S. Rereading the assignment description myself, I see that I wrote "I invite you to respond personally to the ideas of each writer and to connect each essay to your own work and the work of the class." It's that last phrase that suggests where your last two annotations did not satisfy. Do I really need to hammer this further?"

_______________________________________________________________________

Which I guess is something of a victory.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Combat of the Essay

Essay I wrote regarding my final thoughts, for the class, on the composition process. It's mostly about dragons.



Last time, I said that the first step in an examination of my writing process was to have a readable copy of
the assignment on-hand.  Although I still think that this is mostly
true and important to have on-hand, it won’t be true for much longer –
someday, I’ll have graduated college, and will have to establish some
sort of writing habits that are independent of assignments from
professors.  This is fine, as I’ve developed a new sort of process
and, to steal the title from a researchable technology in a game I’ve
been enamored with recently (an old PC game called Alpha Centauri that
is really one of the most intelligent games I’ve ever played – and
I’ve played a great many intelligent games), and I’d like to call it the same thing: Doctrine:Flexibility.

In the confines of the game, the technology allows you to begin
developing military units that are based around speed, agility, and
flexibility.  It is required in order to build any sort of naval, air,
or ground unit that is inside of a vehicle.  Although it’s required
for the tank-type platforms too, I believe that this is outside of the
scope of what I’m trying to say and thus will not attend to it.  The
technology, when you discover it, is accompanied by a quote from Sun
Tzu about being able to immediately adapt to any sort of changing
situation.  It’s also about not merely being able to adapt, but
understand exactly what it is your adapting to – and how best to
combat it.

I like to consider writing as a form of combat because I am a gigantic
nerd.  If you would but bear with me, I can explain some of the
similarities, and how they apply to my own process.  The first
component of the writing battle process is two-fold, and can be boiled
down to a single word: preparation.  This is the single most important
aspect of my writing process – before writing, I must have an idea of
what I will be trying to say.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a
formalized thesis statement, but the concept – and my readings for it
– must have congealed sufficiently so that there is, at the least, an
image of the monster that I have to kill.  If I don’t know what the
monster even looks like – let alone its weakness (almost always the
belly) – then how am I to slay it?  Secondary, if only in concept but
not importance to this, is the proper armament.  I’ve always liked the
adage/cliché of not taking a knife to a gun fight, and this applies
well to this concept – if I’m going to be writing, for example, about
dystopic narratives present in early Norwegian black metal, then
listening to a bunch of rap music and reading about feminist theory in
the confines of Victorian Literature simply isn’t going to do me any
good – this would be the knife.  And really, why even bother with a
knife?  The goal is to win, not match weapons – always take the gun
with you, even if you know it’s a knife fight - perhaps, especially when you know its a knife fight.  Point being, always
have research and information relevant to exactly what you’re trying
to say, as these are the only weapons you get.

This arose for me personally even in the last day.  I decided to try
and make the argument that postcolonial literature is inherently
dystopic in nature, and that the two forms of literature share a great
deal in common.  Dystopic narratives and postcolonial concepts are
both quite nuanced and complex ideas, and more work than merely
reading the novels must be applied (it didn’t help that journal-based
research was required).  Strangely, I found that the best piece of
research for aiding me in defining dystopic narrative wasn’t so much
concerned with literature as it was with music – the piece was
actually about how industrial music and Dadaist art are incredibly
similar, and it merely used dystopic narratives as a bridge between
the two.  This was probably not the sort of research that I’d have
expected to use and lean heavily on in my work, yet it was – it turned
out to be a gigantic gun.  The research that was recommended by the
professor, which focused on Orientalism and then on postcolonial
literature, turned out to be the knives mentioned – although they made
for great supporting arguments, I found that they were almost too
abstract to employ as primary arguments.

Had I approached this assignment without an understanding of what I
wanted to accomplish, then I wouldn’t be writing this now – I’d be a
charred cinder of a man sitting, kind of, in my shabby, typical university-student living room.  My
research would have revolved around postcolonial concepts, and not
dystopian ones – and as said, you should never bring a knife to a gun
fight.  Although this speaks to the weapons that should be brought to
fight writing-dragons, it doesn’t speak to their weak spot.

This spot is different for every dragon and every battle.  This is, of
course, a metaphor for how you go about making your argument, and
requires a heavy volume of pre-writing for me personally, in addition to
free-writing and generalized note-taking.  I look at this as being
sort of like spending hours with dusty tomes about the dragon I’m
planning to fight.  In the context of the paper mentioned above, I
discovered – or, as has to be the case with things I’ve not done
before, decided – that this hinged on how well I defined dystopian
narrative.  I’m not going to write this out here – I’ve done this
twice in two papers in the last week and am really, honestly, hugely
tired of it – but by defining dystopian narrative in the way that I
meant to apply it, it enabled me to take three to five fundamental
concepts of it, and apply those individually to postcolonial and
Orientalist literature.  For those keeping score at home, I was
writing specifically about William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Orhan Pamuk’s
Snow (one of the most profoundly sad books I’ve read in a long time),
and Tariq Ali’s Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree.  By breaking down
dystopian narrative as I did, it enabled me to make arguments about
each of the three novels independent of one another, and, I would argue, more effectively that I could have otherwise.

I pictured this kind of like setting a series of anti-dragon traps;
one made with fire, in case he had frosty skin; one made of ice, in
case he had flaming scales; and one made of lightning, in case he had
watery eyes like a sappy bitch.  I also selected a corresponding
weapon, in case the dragon got caught in any single one of the traps
and could thus be dispatched accordingly, and also a shotgun in case
he didn’t fall into any of them.  Hey, this is my process, and I get
to make the rules: never bring a knife to a gun fight. It’s kind of like what Bruce Campbell said in one of the Evil Dead movies: “Good, bad .. I’m the guy with the gun.”

Of course, sometimes, no matter your level of preparation, you fail to
anticipate some attribute of the dragon: maybe he can burrow
underground.  Maybe he can spit giant spears, or maybe he has enslaved
a village and is holding is hostage – you didn’t even know that he
could do that!  The tomes don’t mention these kinds of things sometimes.  So too is it with
making literary arguments – sometimes, you run into problems that you
couldn’t have anticipated.  Sometimes, no matter how hard one tries,
arguments just can’t quite fit.  This again returns us to Doctrine:
Flexibility.

In this situation, the Doctrine requires that definitions and
arguments be made of liquid and not stone – they must not be rigid,
because sometimes, the arguments, as they have been laid out, just
don’t work with what you’re trying to say.  Being persuasive is almost
always more important than being true to the argument, and sometimes,
this means arguing against fundamentally-held conceptions about the
idea you’re trying to manipulate.  For example, when asked about what
dystopian narrative is, or to mention a few dystopian narratives
they’ve encountered, they would say: it’s a story about the future
with a super-shitty fascist or libertarian government, like in 1984 or
Brave New World.  The Tariq Ali novel mentioned – Shadows of the
Pomegranate Tree ¬– takes places in al-Andalus and what is now known
as Granada during the time of Isabella and Ferdinand.  I think this
was sometime in the fifteenth century – just after the Muslim golden
age, and certainly before the European one.  So, how in the world can
a Christian, royal government removed five hundred years be considered
dystopic?  By the rigorous and clever employment of Doctine:
Flexibility.

Finally: to get to the theory components of my process.  I’m
reasonably sure I’m exactly the sort of Neil Gaiman is, although I’d
like to think that I have a higher capacity for academic sort-of
stuff, if only because I’m in college, will be in college, and will
probably stay in college for my whole life.  Due to this, I kind of
have to have some capacity for academic writing – although I love
poetry, I love more analyzing the shit out of it and holding it up to
the standards of the modern, academic world than anything else.  Elitism is thy name.
Moving on: I made the argument in class that Neil Gaiman is a process
and New Rhetorician writer, and as I said, I find that I am both of these
things.  The former component should be somewhat clear by what was
stated about dragons, machine guns and speed boats, and also knives.
What I particularly like about the New Rhetorician model is this
capacity of creating truth from language – it acknowledges that truth
is a malleable, subjective thing, and that it is my responsibility –
and right – to create it and employ it where and how I see fit.

What is strange to me is how little any of the above applies to my
poetry.  In the last year, I’ve begun to take the craft more
seriously, and am finding that I only kind-of sort-of have a real
methodology for doing so.  Generally speaking, when I sit down to
write a poem, I have a very specific phrase or idea in mind.  Take,
for example, a poem that I recently had published in Prairie Margins;
it’s called Ataxia and is a pantoum, which is a cyclic sort of poem
that I find both irritating and engrossing – I’m big on formal forms,
for some inexplicable reason.  One evening, while returning home after
drinking with some friends, my car got stuck in my driveway because
apparently East Village has too many poor people in it to actually get
plowed in a reasonable amount of time.  Anyway, in the process of
digging it out and kicking my car, the idea of snow .. “clinging to
life like in a nuclear winter” came to mind.  This phrase swam around
my mind for several weeks, and eventually lead to Ataxia – the poem
itself came out bizarrely different than I’d expected it to, but then,
they all do.  Which is why I don’t really get how it happens.  I’ve
come to find, however, that the real craftsmanship in poetry has
nothing to do with the first draft, but comes rather in the editing
and re-writing of it.  “How can this be more clear or archaic?  How
can I modify this line to fit my syllable count (almost always ten or
fourteen) and to sound, well, awesome?”  In this, my poetry arises
through process writing.

I’m not quite sure that the New Rhetorician model applies to this – my
goal with poetry is never truth; indeed, on the first day of class,
the professor asked us what our goal with the form was.  Several
people alluded to establishing a sort of truth, an accuracy, an
honesty and purity of thought, emotion and form – my response was to
cloud reality and to confuse the hell out of people.  This still holds
true, even after formalizing my process and the craft – I don’t want
people to know my truths.  They can get their own – because, when I
write poetry, I am not the noble knight slaying the dragon, and I’m
not the guy bringing a gun to a knife fight.

I am the dragon, and I’m going to kill you.

Composition Theory Essays + Gendered Books Idea Stuff

Putting these here for posterity - they don't have much context in them regarding source material, so they may not make sense to anybody but me.

1.
Initially, I found myself at odds with Bruffee's essay Collaborative Learning and the “Conversation of Mankind,” but I found myself agreeing with the majority of the content of his essay by it's conclusion.

Inclined to disagree that collaborative writing/learning from the outset, I hadn't considered that writing is essentially the same thing, although it takes place specifically inside of one's mind. My personal experience with collaborative learning has generally been poor, mostly due to the reasons that Bruffee laid out; “ethnocentrism, inexperience, personal anxiety, economic interests, and paradigmatic inflexibility.” I found the final reason to be perhaps the most significant; often, the standards that I set for myself academically are different than those of the people that I've been assigned to work with, and this can often dramatically affect the productivity of the group. If I'm driven to meet all requirements and surpass them while following all of the rules closely, but my partner either doesn't care or would rather skirt the edges of the rules, then the difference in vision can be damaging.

I particularly appreciated his point regarding explanatory or argumentative conversations: they're almost identical to those conversations when they're written. Instead of an active voice disagreeing with your thesis and a variety of points, you instead have an internalized version, capable of dissecting your arguments with a cold and callous effectiveness, and when you're writing to explain something (which, I believe, is a form of argumentation in itself), you're speaking directly to the internal voice that doesn't know the first thing about assembling a Warhammer 40K army (or whatever your topic might be).

I found Bruffee's statement concerning the best methods to learn to think better to be interesting; “the first steps to learning to think better, therefore, are learning to converse better and learning to establish and maintain the sorts of social context, the sorts of community life, that foster the sorts of conversation members of the community value.” It strikes me that he's suggesting that by engaging in peers or superiors in active, intelligent dialogue, then you're creating a more powerful and intelligent internalized voice – which aids directly both in writing and thinking, as with a more effective challenging voice, then you are forced to deliver more effective thought in order to combat it.

That conversations “of value” need to occur is a topic that came up among my room mates last night. One of the two sat with one of the sociology professors for four hours, drinking coffee and talking about local, global, and school issues, and the topics ranged from curriculum discussion to community organization. Among the things that my room mate took from the conversation were that these dialogues need to occur with more regularity, and I entirely agree – my room mate, as a direct result of the conversation, was smarter, more well-informed, and had developed a series of new ideas which he could use in the future for various social and academic pursuits. One of the most rewarding conversations that I've had personally was with a former professor over a series of beers in a local bar. The conversation often drifted into territory covered during the class, but due to the more intimate nature of the setting, far greater levels of depth were achieved – although I learned a great deal from the class itself, I developed a series of entirely new insights concerning the course material that I'm not sure I'd have achieved otherwise. It wasn't exclusively self-beneficial – after asking my opinion on a series of curricular ideas for future classes, I believe my professor came away from the discussion with a somewhat better idea of what worked inside of the classroom, and what did not.

I'd like to think my ideas were worthwhile in curricular terms, anyway.

One of the other aspects that this viewpoint skirts around is that of the voice of the writer, or even the speaker. By imagining and being aware that every written work is a dialogue, the result of an internal conversation, it enables the writer to speak with a much more clear voice of their own. When trying to speak to merely a blank page and a letter grade, prose often is written without character and reflection; however, by actively defending your arguments and acknowledging that there could potentially be some harsh critics – even among your peers! - the voice of the individual is much more likely to come through.

2.


The two reading selections for today elaborate on themes that have occurred repeatedly throughout the month’s-worth of readings; that there is a sizeable population of students at the college level that seem to be, for whatever reason, incapable of writing. The majority of these seem to focus on the mechanics of the language, and whether or not the direct instruction of these will better the writing quality of students. I find myself in league with the anti-grammarians, although I think the issue is almost an aside; the essays tend to focus on the craft of writing instead of the purpose, and I find this to be one of the greater failings of the system.
Many students struggle with mathematics due to its high level of abstraction; that is to say, they are taught a series of mechanical methods of evaluating sets of problems to achieve, what often seems to be, an arbitrary goal. 1 + x = 5. Anyone that has taken rudimentary algebra would immediately recognize X as being 4; but what does 4 mean? For that matter, what does X mean? Without a tangible understanding of the purpose of solving the problem (beyond avoiding a check mark), it remains so abstract that to focus on the resolution of the problem and its implications becomes pointless.
By teaching an understanding of the purpose of the problem – such as determining the depth of an angle using trigonometry that will be used to build a fin on a rocket ship – it becomes more clear to students why accuracy is important. It also demonstrates that there is a real purpose beyond a letter grade to the problem.
So too is it with writing; by instructing the core fundamentals of the language and composition, they develop in students a mechanical set of methods by which to deal with problems - introductory paragraph, thesis sentence or phrase, three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion – but fail to elaborate on the function of this form. Most reasonably accomplished or educated writers would argue that the purpose of forms such as the above are to allow for clarity and ease of understanding for the reader, as well as a simplified model of organization for the composer. But would what Rose calls remedial writers be able to explain this? State the function of effective communication via the written word?
“[Freshman composition] became and remained the most consistently required course in the American curriculum.” Why is this? Even though the readings have almost all hinted that the quality of the American student’s writing has dropped in recent decades, we continue to follow the same course. Although my experience, being anecdotal, isn’t worth terribly much, I know that it worked for me – and many of my peers.
Until my junior year of college, I was incapable of identifying a verb, or a noun, or any number of other specific functions of the language. I struggled in an introductory linguistics class to be able to identify a subject, pronoun, and so on – even though I’ve been fully capable of writing a reasonably well-written essay throughout much of my academic life. I believe the cause of this is due to an immense exposure to written works, whether in the form of literature, essay, poetry, or online prose. Through a drive to want to be able to communicate ideas as effectively as some of my favorite authors, I paid close attention to their stylistic choices – specifically issues of phrasing, pacing, and tone – and came to emulate many of what I considered the more effective practices. Further reading further developed the internalized craft.
It strikes me then that an effective method of instructing effective composition rests on providing students with effective examples of composition. Although literature classes often force students to read a great deal of text, they are often chosen for a series of reasons that will not contribute directly to the learning of a student. Themes, antiquated morality, excellent character development – these are the sorts of things that are focused on in a literature course. Often, these works are classical in nature - that is, their writing style is from an era preceding our own in a significant fashion – would seem to be more detrimental to the development of composition than anything else. Although they may develop skills that enable them to analyze characters and plot elements – important in their own right – they display to the student a style which is no longer desireable. Unfortunately, these would often seem to be the only concrete examples of composition received by students (at least before entering University).
Teaching instead works that are renowned for their style, clarity, and high-level of communication of critical ideas might be a better choice. This would enable students to see what the powers of effective writing can be. A lesson plan could proceed similar to the following; 1. An essay is presented, and the instructor asks the students to discuss the major ideas, and whether or not they work, in class and around their peers. 2. After establishing a relative uniformity of interpretation, the instructor could ask /why/ the students received the messages that they did – and finally, 3., the instructor could explain what about the essay – stylistically and mechanically – allowed the class to understand the ideas presented therein as accurately as they did. These broad ideas could then be used in further assignments for the classroom, with an emphasis on clarity of deployment of ideas.

3.


I found that I reacted more strongly to today’s first reading – “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing” – than I have to any of the other assigned readings, and it’s little wonder. As a piece focusing on essentially politicizing the classroom and the politics themselves, it’s difficult not to have an immediate knee-jerk reaction regardless of political orientation. My reaction, specifically, was a tacit agreement with the author – that the political ideologies of the instructor should have little to do with the curriculum and discussion in the classroom.

My issue with using freshman composition as a political platform lies in similar language to the second piece as well, “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone,” in that students at that level typically lack both the political knowledge and rhetorical skills to compete with an instructor that they may disagree with. Although this may provide an opportunity for an instructor to indoctrinate students into what they perceive to be the correct political worldview, they are abusing what is already an inherently unfair situation. Students pay thousands of dollars to learn the skills and abilities necessary to compete in the outside workforce, not to become pawns in a leftist agenda.

That said, I find myself somewhat at odds with this interpretation as well; my view on the relative sanctity of education contrasts with my own political agenda. I believe that I would support, ideologically, the majority of instructors pushing a leftist agenda, and a very real part of me wants professionals at this level to use the opportunity to convert more people to this view – thus increasing votes, population, and ideas present to the left of the spectrum. But again, the classroom – especially the freshman composition classroom – is not the place for this sort of indoctrination. Nowhere on a college campus should students be indoctrinated into a particular mode of thought, regardless of the well-meaning of their preachers. Arguments for the purity of education aside, allowing this sort of behavior will potentially allow for more right-wing and views contradictory to my own to proliferate in schools where alternate ideas are held.

That is not to say that the freshman composition class shouldn’t be a forum for ideological disagreements. Each student will have a different background, and many will likely hold contradictory views. Rather than focus on badgering right-wing students into submission with vastly-advanced skills and understanding of the issues, instructors should rather provide for a forum in which these ideas can be discussed – but in writing. The traditional model of composition at this level, which generally includes at least one argumentative essay, is the perfect place for this sort of rhetoric.

Something that I have never seen done but might provide for an interesting and beneficial assignment would be to allow for two (or potentially more) students with differing political ideologies to write argumentative essays in direct opposition with one another. The students, before the formalized, five-paragraph-essay is written would need to agree on a series of generalized points to cover in the course of their respective essays. The topic, chosen preferably by the students themselves, would then be broken down into a series of points of contention – three or more of these could be chosen, and would become the individual topics for body paragraphs.
For example, were the students to choose abortion as a generalized topic, then the points of contention could read something like; “The point at which life begins (and therefore the point in which abortion is acceptable to all parties(unless of course they’re a genuine fundamentalist and believe that no child should be aborted, even in cases of the death of the mother or rape, in which case they should probably be taken out back and shot)),” “the social and economic ramifications of fully-legalized abortion,” and “alternatives to abortion.” These topics are of course entirely flexible and would change from student to student, but I believe they illustrate my point.

Trouble may arise if the majority of a classroom subscribe to the same general ideology, but this will provide an opportunity to further develop the rhetorical skills of the student – specifically, in how to, with words, bitch-slap the hell out of someone you agree with for making poor arguments.

What I’ve found to be one of the best opportunities for growth in this field, personally, are taking a stand contradictory to my personal beliefs in a topic. I recently completed an Argumentation and Debate course, and very early in the semester the instructor split the classroom into a series of groups. Each of these groups then decided on a specific topic, and then the groups were divided in half again so that there would be clearly-defined teams on each side of the debate. The topic of my group was international electronic piracy (which tended to gravitate most often towards the most popular form of this, music piracy), and even though I am a self-avowed copy-fighter and believe in few causes more passionately than Creative Commons Licensing, I chose to argue on behalf of the developers of intellectual property. Although I was in opposition to the majority of the words I wrote for the debate, I learned more about structuring an argument and about the field than I believe that I would have done had I chosen to support my own beliefs. I believe also that encouraging students to argue for things that they do not agree with will provide an excellent opportunity to hone those skills – for it’s far easier to see the holes in your argument if you already have an established opinion contrary to what you’re saying, as you personally will be your most staunch enemy.

WoW Response:

Alright. I’m actually more interested in exploring, in a slightly more formal fashion, one of the concepts that has arisen as a result of the mini-seminar that was presented by Jonathan and I; specifically, I am referring to the concept of books having a gender.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last week, indeed, almost every moment that I’ve been free from the tyranny of term papers. Alright, not every moment - I completed my last major term paper last evening (17 pages!), and bought myself two bottles of expensive beer as a reward and spent the remainder of the evening watching anime on Adult Swim. Just the same though, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Specifically, and perhaps most critically if I am to proceed with this as an independent research endeavor, about how, exactly, one would define a book as masculine or feminine, or if, as I asked my girlfriend the other night, if this wasn’t a potentially dangerous avenue to even explore. My room mate, whom I respect immensely, is a sociologist-in-training. He’s a pretty clever guy, and has been studying gender/feminism a great deal in the last few months, so, as usual, he’s a pretty good resource to try and tap.

His initial reaction was that all books (I’m speaking specifically of novels in this context) have a gender, which can be relatively easily determined. He had a few ideas, but first, an examination of how he would define a book as masculine or feminine. His first criteria is the characters - are they predominantly, according to the BEM Sex Role Inventory, or some other metric, feminine or masculine? Their actual sex may or may not be important. Are their actions identifiably, in the Western context, feminine or masculine? And so on - but I, as I told him, find this viewpoint troublesome. It completely ignores two critical components of any novel; the plot, and the theme that arises as a result of both the characters and the plot, and how they intertwine. He argued that these can both be readily defined as masculine or feminine, which I disagree with - but this will be addressed later.

First, though, the difficulty of labeling specific novels. I’d like to star with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Note here that I haven’t read any of the novel in years, and my experience with it is mostly through feminist interpretations. From what I understand, it’s a novel about a woman making great strides in a masculine world, and not only succeeding, but dominating. So: superficially, a celebration of femininity, and the heights of power that it can achieve. In order to accomplish these things, however, the main character had to embrace attributes that are decidedly viewed, at least with the BEM Sex Role Inventory, as masculine - like aggressiveness, domineering, and assuredness. So - just because the main character is a female, does that make it feminine? How does her use of predominantly masculine attributes sway this? It almost makes it a celebration of manliness (lol) in the form of a female. Because of situations like this and others, I’m not quite sure how to proceed.

He also suggested surveying something like 1,000 authors randomly, and asking them how they identified their work. But this, too, is troublesome; how relevant is authorial intent? That’s a difficult one to determine, particularly if this research is to focus on “classic” or works of literature that are widely-regarded as being “good” - a lot of these works will be from dead authors, so surveying them becomes impossible. “But surely a consensus can be reached among readers about this?,” he asked - but hardly. The way that literature is interpreted is entirely subjective, although when it reaches the higher levels of criticism it becomes .. well, still subjective. Everything it still viewed through the lens of the reader - if they identify with and agree with Marxist ideals, then they’re going to want to make cases for or against why a novel is Marxist. So too with the gender of a novel - I personally might identify Atlas Shrugged as masculine, but another reader would not. The trouble, of course, with literary analysis, is that there is room to make both arguments - not merely to make them, but to make them effective. Why I chose to be an English major I will never quite understand.

Just the same, my initial thoughts on how to conduct this are as follows; first, some sort of what my room mate called “commonality of argument” must be established. That is to say, if my conception of books having a gender one way or another isn’t shared by at least some peers, then it’s mostly worthless, I think. So: a survey of possibly fellow students as a starting point. It would contain a couple of things, like asking them to take the BEM Sex Role Inventory - this may or may not end up being relevant, but I’d still like to see if, say, a higher rate of masculinity doesn’t correspond to rating novels as being masculine, and vice versa. I suspect that it will influence it, but I’m not quite sure how - maybe reversed. I personally rank somewhat highly on the feminine measure, and find that I would call more novels masculine than feminine. After that, a series of novels, and maybe asking for a brief, paragraph-long examination. I’d like to inject novels intentionally that are possibly clearly masculine, like, say, Dune or pretty much any Philip K. Dick novel, and some that are clearly feminine like, say, uh .. I’m not sure on this one. Maybe Mary Barton. I’d also like some more troublesome books, like American Psycho and Atlas Shrugged - the former I believe I talked about in class - it’s a celebration, initially, of masculine attributes - and then a damnation of them. I’m curious how people respond to this.

After getting the results from a collection of students, I’d like to apply this to a variety of maybe faculty; the literature professors would probably be the most in-depth, but I think feminist theory and political science professors would also provide interesting responses as well.

My friend Marcus had the following to contribute: Romance Languages are inherently gendered, and therefore almost anything that is discussed through them will have a gender. I’m inclined to agree, but not having any knowledge of non-Romance Languages makes this difficult for me.