On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Literature + Computation = Amazing Results

1 word, 2 words, 150 words! So many beautiful words! Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!

As a graduate student in English, I guess it comes to no surprise that I tend to have an inherent aversion to math and anything related to quantitative studies. Even as I child, I was unable to understand why the Count from Sesame Street felt such orgasmic joy as he immersed himself into the realm of numbers. I always viewed language as a safe haven from the influence of the quantitative, but then came Algebra and decided to mix letters and numbers. Let’s just say that I was less than pleased with the combination.

During my undergrad studies in English linguistics, I came to appreciate quantitative approaches towards texts and language, but I never thought that I would deal with this combination as a scholar of English. However, thanks to a graduate introductory course that I am taking on Digital Humanities (or Humanities Computing) at the University of Notre Dame, I have recently come across some incredibly useful ideas (and online software) that really augment the possibilities of quantitative research within the field of literature. These ideas and tools facilitate what Franco Moretti calls “Distance Reading,” which basically denotes the analysis of hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of literary texts in order to get a better sense of meaningful changes and developments throughout literary history (see my review of his book Graphs, Maps, Trees).

I have recently been dabbling with the interpretation and creation of programming code (using Python and HTML) thanks in part to the Programming Historian 2, a step-by-step tutorial on how to create basic computer programs that can decode and search for basic patterns in digital texts. Nonetheless, the possibilities of the pre-existing tools available on the web are indeed much more powerful and seductive than the basic programs I’ve developed so far. I will focus my attention on two of the many tools I have surveyed as of now: Voyant Tools and the Google Labs N-Gram Viewer.

VOYANT TOOLS

According to their webpage, Voyant Tools is a web-based environment used primarily for the analysis of digital texts. This “environment” allows you to conduct different types of quantitative analyses (word counting, word frequency, etc.) with any text in practically any digital format (html, .doc, etc.). All you have to do is paste the text that you want to analyze or simply provide a web link to the actual text. The application then “reveals” facts, quantitative data, and statistics that are interpreted from the textual input. Not only can Voyant Tools demonstrate the frequency and distribution of particular words across the text, but it is also able to depict graphs and lists that graphically illustrate the prominence of any word in comparison to another.

In order to test Voyant Tools, I simply pasted the URL of the html version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (made available via Project Guttenberg) onto the main text bar, and I clicked on the button labeled “reveal.” My browser then opened the following set of tools:

Now, it is important to note that I applied limitations on the incorporation of stop words into my data in order to limit the types of words that Voyant Tools used and interpreted (which simply means that I requested VT to eliminate “meaningless” grammatical words such as “the,” “a,” “are,” among others, from the interpretations of the data). The application processed the textual data, organized it, and depicted it in an array of useful formats.

The “Cirrus” section illustrates the most common words of the text in a visual cloud, and the size of the word is directly correlated to its frequency within the corpus. The “Words in the Entire Corpus” section lists all of the words that appear in the source text and lists how many times they appear. The “Corpus Reader” section depicts the textual input and highlights the appearance of a word selected within the frequency list. The “Word Trend” section graphically illustrates the frequency of a selected word from the beginning to the end of the text. Note how I selected the word “man” within the Wilde’s novel, and how the Word Trend section illustrates how the word increases in frequency as the novel progresses.

Overall, I think the research possibilities of this program are indeed noteworthy, for it may allow us to offer concrete evidence for some of the claims we make as literary scholars. For instance, if we were to argue that Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein increasingly begins to view the creature as a human being, perhaps we could compare the frequency and distribution of words such as “monster,” “creature,” “devil,” and “wretch” with other terms such as “human,” “being,” and “man” in order to determine when and how the creature is labeled by his creator. Of course, there might be issues with these tools, especially when determining the context of these terms, and whether or not concepts are referenced to using different names. However, as Moretti once posited in his aforementioned work, graphs and lists provide data, not interpretation.

GOOGLE LABS N-GRAM VIEWER

The premise of the N-Gram Viewer is far simpler than that of Voyant Tools: using the collection of digital books found within the Google Books archive, N-Gram viewer allows you to trace the presence of particular words or terms within thousands (and even millions) of books across a specific span of time. All you need to do is type in the word(s) that you are interested in tracing, establish the years that you want to survey, and the literary scope you want to study (English texts, Spanish texts, American texts, etc.), and the app will trace a nifty graph of the presence of this term in books that fall within the parameters you established.

The coolest part is the fact that N-Gram Viewer is able to illustrate the prominence of more than one term within the same chart, allowing you to trace, for instance, the use of different synonyms or of complimentary concepts (e.g. “adult, child, teenager” – “gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual” – “novel, poem, short story” – “Asian, Latino, Caucasian, African American”, etc). Below, you can see the search I conducted for the terms “gay,” “homosexual,” “bisexual,” “queer,” and “lesbian” using a corpus of English fiction between the years of 1850 and 2000. The results were as follows:

It is quite amazing to see these results illustrated in such a clear and concise format. Note how the use of the term “gay” begins to decline after the 1850’s, probably due to its increasing association with homosexuality rather than an emotional state of joy. It is after the 1970’s (which coincides with the establishment of a gay rights movement after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York) that the use of the term gay begins to increase dramatically in English fiction, leading to a peak of the term in the late 90’s (which happens to be the peak of the nationalization of gay media in television and popular culture). It is interesting to note that the presence of the term “lesbian” roughly begins to manifest and increase during the same time that the use of the term gay begins its ascent.

Of course, as with Voyant Tools, the N-Gram Viewer has issues, particularly when it comes to the shifting meaning of particular words, the prominence of a certain term to denote a particular concept, and the sampling of the books themselves (which according to Culturomics, only represents around 12% of all the books ever published). But regardless of these issues, I particularly enjoy the possibilities that these tools present within the realm of distance reading, and I’m looking forward to seeing the new tools that these applications will inspire.

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My Own Personal Aporia

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”

 —Henry David Thoreau, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker

Who reads, in fact? Is it I, or some part of me?” (de Certeau 173). As I read these words in Michel de Certeau’s discussion of “Reading as Poaching,” I had to take a brief pause to analyze them and let them sink in my mind. Indeed, it is a short sentence, but this string of words sure does pack a punch! Who reads? This is a question that I’ve never really asked myself before because the answer seemed obvious: of course, I am the one that reads. But who is this I that I’m referring to? Am I decoding and interpreting the text, or does another person or institution provide me an ideological lens to “see” it? Am I fully intertwining myself with the reading, or is the self only partially intertwined with it? But an even deeper question that must be asked is whether or not I want to and can incorporate myself fully into what I read. If reading and becoming were approached as an entirely unitary process, then the minds of the Enlightenment were correct: the text imprints itself upon me, it shapes and transforms me…

However, this is indeed far from the case. Reading is indeed a mediation between what was written and what I know/believe, and in this interplay, we find the notions of taste, empathy, understanding, and rapport. The outcome of this interaction is unpredictable… it does not mimic the action of copy and pasting that is possible through a computer or the telepathic transmission of ideas as seen in science fiction movies. We cannot plug our minds into a simulated program and upload information directly. We are limited to language, a method of output that reaches even greater interpretive corruption when expressed in written form, devoid of the non-verbal and phonetic cues that aid understanding in speech. Put 15 different people in a room and make them read the same text, and they will understand it and approach it in entirely different ways, as we can see every single time that our class gathers every Tuesday. A text is the core of a vast network of ideas, symbols, interactions, and emotions, but similar to the golden doubloon that Captain Ahab nails on the ship’s mast in Melville’s Moby Dick, we ultimately project ourselves into the text in diverging degrees, and therefore we achieve different interpretations and assign different values. A text may reach me in ways that they could never reach other people. A text that may seem insignificant to you may be my own personal white whale, and vice-versa. Once something becomes a white whale, it is inevitable for us to begin pursuing it, and trying desperately to poach it. However, we know that the conquering of a text is indeed futile, for although we are able to launch our harpoons, and although we might wound a fin or a patch of skin, the metaphorical whale continues to swim in that vast and unknowable ocean.

What’s even more curious is that approaches to texts increase in complexity because the I, or the self, is also something that is never fixed and that is constantly changing and metamorphosing. For instance, I read fragments from Thoreau’s Walden five years ago for a survey course I took on Early American literature. The text made no impression on me whatsoever, to the point that for a while, I had entirely forgotten that I previously had exposure to the text (interesting how the notion of ‘forgetting’ comes to play here… similar to the example of the door that you discussed in the last class, it is remarkable to see how objects of vast importance lose their significance and fade into our mental background. I guess this occurs because we are not experienced enough to see the value, or because we take the value for granted). However, my experience reading it the second time around was vastly different, and most of the ideas and occurrences are now viewed in entirely different light. The issues and tensions between different functional systems, the search for simplicity, approaching life as an experiment, finding solace in solitude, the fact that we can feel lonely even when surrounded by people. I’m not lying to you: reading Thoreau’s words this time around opened wounds and opened my mind in ways that I never even imagined that it could. And this is precisely because who I am today is radically different from the person that I was five years ago. I now have experiences and sets of knowledge that allowed me to grasp and appreciate notions that I couldn’t possible begin to comprehend back then. Thus, I should’ve said that “part of me” read the text five years ago rather than saying that I read the text five years ago.

I think I am reaching a point where my perspective towards literature, academia, and knowledge is finally beginning to make sense. In my last response, I mentioned how difficult I find it to classify myself as a scholar of a particular type of literature. But in all honesty, my interests and my intellectual affinities are scattered all over the place. For instance, I started off as a student of Psychology during my undergraduate years, and I quickly transitioned to English with the goal of becoming a writer. It was there that I discovered a raving passion for applied linguistics in order to understand bilingualism and language learning. However, I soon took a class on Psycholinguistics and Semantics, and I sailed off into the realm of theoretical linguistics, focusing on how the mind processes meaning. I then started graduate studies in English education, and I developed a newfound obsession with the analysis and teaching of literature… and now I am here, working towards a PhD in American literature. Many have criticized me for being unable to focus my attention on a single area of study… and I must admit that there are consequences to having scattered knowledge: you end up a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I constantly find myself overwhelmed by the ideas that I’m exposed to, and at times I feel down due to my lack of literary knowledge when in comparison to my peers. But perhaps what I lack in specificity, I make up for in breadth.

For once, I’m beginning to view things differently, and I’m slowly but surely becoming reinvigorated and renewed. Rather than keeping my knowledge segregated and compartmentalized, I beginning to see the value of establishing links between the areas, creating a network that is new, scary, but ultimately exciting. The more I read in class, the more astounded I become with the possibilities that can take place in literary study. And that is precisely because I’m realizing that there is more than one way to approach objects and things. I am also beginning to view the world as gatherings rather than a set of individualistic and separable units.  I am opening my eyes to the effervescent and explosive reactions that occur when we cross academic, cultural, and epistemological boundaries. As de Certeau points out in this discussion, “The creativity of the reader grows as the institution that controlled it declines” (172). Call it chance or call it fate, I think that I’m currently in a time in which my creativity has the possibility to thrive. The hegemonic values of stifling institutions within literary study are being challenged with the inclusion of the quantitative, the scientific, the social, and the cultural within our toolbox, and with the view of the world itself as a text. I could pay my respects to the canon while at the same time exploring the peripheries of the literary realm. I’m going to graduate school in a time in which I can analyze graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays… in which I finally have the tools and the opportunity to tackle Sedaris’ text as a noteworthy and valid source of knowledge… in which I can approach a Young Adult Novel with the same degree of seriousness that is applied to canonical texts. And I must admit that this multidisciplinary transcendence is both liberating and electrifying. I am escaping from my own personal aporia.

But more importantly, I think I’m finally beginning to realize that I don’t necessarily become the text, and it is not the text that becomes me. Rather, the text and I are a hybrid being working together to become. De Certeau’s text reaffirms this realization towards the latter part of his discussion:

Indeed, reading has no place […]. [The reader’s] place is not here or there, one or the other, but neither the one nor the other, simultaneously inside and outside, dissolving both by mixing them together, associating texts like funerary statues that he awakens and hosts, but never owns. In that way, he also escapes from the law of each text in particular, and from that of the social milieu. (de Certeau 174)

As I read this passage, my mind starting screaming Bruno Latour over and over again. We see yet another manifestation of the struggle between purification and translation: do we separate the reader and the text? Do we tie reading to a place or a space? Is the process internal or external? Do these binaries mix in any way? The answer is that reading is everything and anything. Similar to the waters that the Pequod ventured through, they are not fixed or static: water flows, evaporates, freezes, paves, swallows, erupts, and connects. Our readings, our positions as readers, are not fixed. We are ships without anchors in search of our own whales… or sharks, or fish, or freedoms, or choices, or destinies, or new lands. And arguably, the same occurs with our writing and our attempts to produce meaning. Over and over again, professors have told me to avoid being personal in my academic writing, to write in third person, to avoid personal anecdotes and distracting stories… but HOW can I possibly do that? You may accuse me of being subjective, but regardless of third person writing or the lack of personal anecdotes, it does not change the fact that what I choose to put on paper is part of me. I think were in a time where rules have to be broken and where experimentation, whether successful or not, has to thrive. How else could we possibly escape the aporia that is not only trying to sink our ship, but that is ultimately trying to drown us all via an inescapable and inexorable whirlpool?

And if our ship happens to sink, will Queequeg’s coffin be there to save us?

Sources:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520271459/

http://www.amazon.com/Walden-Annotated-Henry-D-Thoreau/dp/0300104669/

http://www.amazon.com/Moby-Dick-Whale-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/0143105957/

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On Fables of the Mind

Back in the day when I was an ESL instructor at the University of Puerto Rico, I was assigned to teach a writing and rhetoric course centered on controversial and contemporary issues. Before I began to lesson plan, I encountered a wonderful editorial in the New York Times titled “Mystery and Evidence,” written by Tim Crane, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge. The piece discussed the inability of science and religion to mesh simply because they are based on entirely different kinds of “evidence” and practices. I thought that it would be interesting to discuss this essay in class, not only because it would be a way to discuss the importance of secularization in academic writing (particularly in a deeply religious country such as Puerto Rico), but also because many of the claims were debatable. The class seemed to stomach the essay and digest it effectively, until I absentmindedly referred to Christianity as a myth.

I could tell that the use of this world deeply upset my students. One student in particular raised her hand, and asked if I was implying that the story of Christ is no different than the legend of Hercules. In my mind, I was thinking “absolutely.” But rather than concretizing my beliefs in front of the class, I simply mentioned that we were in that class to learn about writing and rhetoric, not to discuss religious beliefs. I always wonder what would’ve happened if I affirmed my lack of belief to my students, and if I argued that yes, I believe that in terms of realness, there is little difference between Christ and Hercules in my mind. But I didn’t do it, first and foremost because I didn’t deem it to be appropriate at the time, and secondly, because I am not there to force feed my beliefs down someone’s throat. After all, my distancing from Christianity was a long and arduous process based on my immersion into the realm of knowledge and academia, and personal issues I had with the church due to my stances on sexual orientation and the body. Meaningful changes take time… even though Emerson would argue that time is simply a bodily construct that our soul does not respond to.

Speaking of Emerson, I definitely feel at times as if I am being forced fed a set of ideas that I am unwilling to tolerate. His views on God, morality, and the soul definitely don’t mesh well with my ideological perspective, and at times I found myself grunting or rolling my eyes as I read his prose. Part of it has to do with his views towards science, empirical “world” knowledge, and philosophy: “The philosophy of six thousand year has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve” (Emerson 163). Another part has to do with his depiction of knowledge as a spiritually bound phenomenon that is inevitably linked to god himself; a claim that is asserted but not backed up by any logical evidence whatsoever, but rather, by a sense of aesthetic judgment (the world is too perfect, too beautiful, and too organized; thus, there must be a god). However, the more I immerse myself in Emerson’s prose, the more I begin to question. First and foremost, I do have to recall that Emerson is very much a product of his time in many aspects, a time in which religion had a firmer grasp on society’s cognizance. Although it is not entirely easy to be a person of science—with no religious beliefs—during this day and age, imagine how difficult it was during Emerson’s time?

The more I read Emerson’s words, the more it becomes apparent that he was not entirely bound by faith, and he not only questioned religion, but he openly challenges it (especially when concerning ritualistic practices). Emerson was overly aware of the fact that knowledge eliminates the “magic” of the world, thus reinforcing the notion that immersion into the exchange of knowledge and fact can lead to a weakening of faith based ideas and premises:

But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make thing what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of the mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. (Emerson 70)

It’s ironic that through his addresses, sermons, and lectures, Emerson deeply strives to open our minds to the so-called reality that he has affiliated with, which at times seems deeply Christian and at other times seems like a Christian-tinged version of pantheism (god, the over-soul is in everything). And through his notions, the world is also reduced to a myth, a fable, a one-shot explanation for everything and anything… and to be frank, I’m not entirely sure that Emerson himself is always convinced with his beliefs.

First and foremost, although he indeed believes in a religious doctrine, his particular belief system consists of the rejection of practices and beliefs based on human ideological constructions. He rejects the notion of revering Christ as if he were god himself, and he goes as far as to call Christ a demigod, linking him to other mythical figures such as Apollo and Osiris (Emerson 73). At other times, especially within his poetry, Emerson seems to contradict notions that he himself posits, such as the fact that the over-soul resides in Nature and in humans. This is particularly noticeable in his poem “Hamatreya,” in which he clefts the supposed unity that exists between earth and humans: “Mine and yours; Mine, not yours” (Emerson, lines 28-29). Note that the first line of Earth’s song reinforces the notion that although it is believed that earth is shared or connected with humans, it is erroneous to believe so. This realization that the earth is not as connected or submissive to human will ultimately eliminates any sense of bravery that the speaker has, which implies that the “chill of the grave,” death itself, is the ultimate law of the universe that shatters the illusion of life. These ideas may seem slightly scrambled and nonsensical, but the point I’m trying to make here is that perhaps Emerson was more lost and confused than we may initially deem him to be.

Regardless of the view of religion of mythical belief, or the view of science as a “mere illustration and fable of the mind,” aren’t both aiming to describe and understand the world in one sense or another? Aren’t both perspectives limited, unable to cover the entire scope of our cosmos? I may have my own inclinations, but even then I must admit that there is only so much that science can explain at this point and time. But, as Thoreau posits in the third chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “In the mythus a superhuman intelligence uses the unconscious thoughts and dreams of men as its hieroglyphics to address men unborn. In the history of the human mind, these glowing and ruddy fables precede the noonday thoughts of men, as Aurora the sun’s rays” (49). Religion and science, in their own particular ways, use supposition and creativity to come up with a logical set of ideas and tools that future generations can use on their own terms to understand and interpret the world. As Tim Crane posited, they are different practices that exist to achieve the same goal, only on different terms… both provide a sense of satisfaction, but both also leave you with a thirst (albeit not necessarily unquenchable). But as Crane ultimately posits, whereas science tries to understand the world via the elimination of mystery, religion approaches mystery as a necessary given. I for one, like mysteries to be reduced, if not solved.

Sources:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/mystery-and-evidence/

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393967921/

http://www.amazon.com/Concord-Merrimack-Rivers-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140434429/

 

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Towards a Materialist Conception of Form

Traditionally, close reading is approached as the key to unlocking and understanding the nuances of history, meaning, and ideology in literary texts. Nevertheless, by conducting close readings of a select range of texts, one only engages with a minuscule and insignificant percentage of the literary corpus. Franco Moretti’s approach towards this issue in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History argues for the implementation of quantitative and “scientific” methodologies in literary study as a solution to this dilemma. This implementation leads to the widening of the literary scope in order to focus on general historical developments rather than specific literary events, which in turn offers a fresh and bold conceptual approach towards the study of the novel. At first, his attempt at elevating the status of the quantitative, the spatial, and the genealogical as the heart of literary history seems questionable and even impractical within an academic tradition built upon subjectivity and creativity. Nonetheless, by pushing the scholar of literature to focus on notions such as genre and trends rather than on close readings of selected texts, Moretti manages to highlight the creative and intellectual possibilities of approaching literary history from a renewed perspective, which exemplifies the distinctive insights that literary graphs, maps, and trees can offer to the discipline of comparative literature.

Moretti begins his discussion by arguing that close reading only allows the reader to engage with a small percentage of the total amount of texts that have been published. This is problematic because it leads to the prioritization of canonical texts, leaving aside peripheral texts that were not favored or circulated by a wide audience. He points out that close reading strives to present certain texts as representative of literary history; however, this representative approach essentially ignores the entire spectrum of texts necessary to create a complete and representative understanding. Basing himself on previous research developed by other scholars, Moretti focuses his attention on illustrating general notions such as the rate of publication of novels within certain locations and time spans, and on the prominence of particular literary genres (epistolary, Gothic, etc,) across time in order to comprehend trends, rises, and falls that demand interpretations and explanations that shed light to the problems and gaps in literary history.

In order illustrate these general notions and trends, Moretti divides his book into three different sections that discuss the tools/ approaches that can be used to study novels from a general and encompassing perspective, which he dubs a “materialist conception of form” (92). In the first section on graphs, he discusses the use of quantitative diagrams to illustrate shifts, trends, and cycles that have appeared in the genre of the novel throughout time. In his second section on maps, he illustrates the use of spatial diagrams to give shape to the coexistence of the real and the imaginary in novels, and to point out the relationship that exists between social conflict (or social forces) and form. Lastly, he discusses the use of evolutionary or genealogical trees to analyze novels morphologically, thus tightening the bonds that exist between history and form. In due course, the use and implementation of positivist tools and methodologies in the study of literature stresses gaps and ambiguities that demand to be explained qualitatively in order to get a true and encompassing sense of literary history. Graphs reveal trends and cycles within novelistic genres, which require a historical or content-based explanation; maps are based on the reduction of the text into elements and their reconstruction into diagrams that might “possess ‘emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower level” (53); trees illustrate literary genres from an evolutionary perspective, underlining the devices and contexts necessary for the typological survival and extinction of particular novels.

Moretti’s book pushes the reader to ask a central question: what would be the effects if the literary scholar’s attention would shift from the exceptional to the general? Indeed, Moretti raises an intriguing question at this point, and it leads the reader to wonder what new knowledge or insights can be obtained by approaching novels from a bird-eye view rather than the microscopic view that has traditionally been favored in this area of study. Moretti, however, is not promoting a look at both the general history of literary texts and the thematic and ideological idiosyncrasies within particular novels (i.e. close reading). But, with his usage of the term “shift” of perspective, he is suggesting a complete change from the exact towards the general. Moretti grounds the need for this shift on valid claims; after all, it is virtually impossible to get a complete historical sense of a literary era or period simply by analyzing a minor percentage of texts written during those times, and it is even less feasible to get a true sense of the richness and variety of said period, especially when many texts are subjectively deemed to be representative of a particular period or genre. Ergo, Moretti suggests that a more “rational history” can be achieved if one were to put aside the traditional view of focusing on one text, and focus instead on the notions of world literature and comparative morphology: “take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformations” (90). By doing so, one can arguably create a whole representation; a more collective and comprehensive approach, which can be achieved by employing the use of quantitative methods in literary studies, and by focusing on the forces that shape literary history (devices and genres) rather than on texts themselves: “Texts are certainly the real objects of literature… but they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” (76), for they are unable to represent a genre in its entirety.

Wherein lies the value of approaching literary texts in this fashion, and do scholars of literary history/studies truly want to leave the notion of close readings as an afterthought? True, the implementation of quantitative, cartographic, and genealogical methods can lead to a greater understanding of the trends and influences that shaped literary genres, and they push the reader to look beyond traditional categorizations and to see the variety and richness that exists within these classifications. However, the question is whether or not a truly “rational history” is something that literary scholars are aiming for in the first place, especially when such a rational approach undermines the aesthetic, cultural, sentimental, and political particularities that certain texts possess, and that lead to this intense desire to conserve, highlight, and perpetuate the validity of said texts in a culture that is increasingly distancing itself from interest in the literary. Also, I personally would argue that certain novels are favored over others simply because they embody certain qualities, such as aesthetic appeal and social/political significance, which make them both salient and influential; not every novel published is a work of art.

In his discussion of shifts within the genre of the novel, Moretti underscores the usage of quantitative methods as a way of being more inclusive and encompassing in the discussion of literary texts, especially as it pertains to the study of novel as a genre: “all great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only […]; and if the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has also erased nine tenths of literary history. Too much” (30). Although it can be argued that Moretti is not discrediting the value of current approaches towards the novel entirely, he is affirming that these approaches, although insightful, limit the scope of the literary texts that can be scrutinized, thus preventing a rational and comprehensive literary history from taking shape. To some degree, it is ironic that he pushes for a greater degree of literary inclusivity by somewhat excluding the academic practices that have defined the venue of literary study since its conception. What is even more peculiar is that Moretti resorts to the use of quantitative and genealogical methods in order to make the study of literature more open, exact, and methodical. Nonetheless, the data is ultimately approached with the same subjectivities and sense of murkiness that literary texts are already being approached with: “Quantitative research provides a type of data which is ideally independent of interpretations, […] and that is of course also its limit: it provides data, not interpretation” (9). However, Moretti justifies this limit by affirming that the quantitative data reveals problems, whereas form offers the solutions, and that it is precisely this revelation that leads to the questions that must be answered in literary studies (27).  Are these apparent problems the ones that truly concern all scholars of literature? Furthermore, it must be questioned whether or not the literary can be understood with a positivist attitude.

A major issue with Moretti’s views and approaches is that he strives to attribute a sense of validity to the field of literature within a society that is increasingly favoring quantitative and positivist methods: a society that is pushing individuals to favor grounded and so-called pragmatic areas of study rather than abstract, ideological, and idealistic areas such as the humanities. However, should generalist and quantitative methods be the heart of literary studies and history, or should they be approximated as a heuristic and complementary aid that works in conjunction to close reading to reach this indefinable and unattainable core? To some extent, graphs, maps and trees can function as pillars within the structure of literary studies, especially within the domain of literary history. Yet, it is questionable if they can (or will ever) serve as the foundation which supports the structure in the first place. Regardless, Moretti’s well-crafted book definitely adds a new layer of possibility to the study of literature and literary history, and as he himself points out, it does an outstanding job of “opening conceptual possibilities” rather than providing concrete and exact justifications (92).

You can purchase a copy of the book here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1844670260/

On Knowledge and Belief in Emerson’s XXXIX Sermon

Charles Taylor, in his discussion of Disenchantment and Reenchantment in his book titled Dilemmas and Connections, posits that in the premodern world, meaning can be found not only within the mind of the individual, but it can also be found in objects present within the external world (290). Ostensibly, what is being argued here is that even in a hypothetical world with no sentient beings present, objects in a premodern world would still possess an inherent quality, or spirit, that would provide it with a meaning or a purpose. However, when we view this notion with a modern lens, it becomes apparent that we humans believe that the mind infuses meaning into the exterior world. On the other hand, we can simply don the non-modern lens and argue that neither the mind nor the exterior are more influential, and that both work in conjunction to create meaning, which is in and of itself a mental construct.

Thus, the division between the inside (the mind) and the outside (nature; the world) becomes increasingly complex because although objects and ideas that are not human-affiliated are considered to be outside of the mind, they still possess the ability to influence how the mind interprets an environment. In other words, the so-called inherent meaning infused within exterior objects has the ability to amalgamate with our interior mind, to the point that it can affect the way we view and approach the world (291). Therefore, the magical wall that creates this divide becomes disenchanted, leaving us with a whole. Nonetheless, there is a certain allure that exists within the maintenance of the interior and exterior division, for it is one that we have used to construct our understanding of the world up to this point. As Taylor would put it, the mentality survives, even if it’s in the background.

As I was reading Emerson’s XXXIX sermon, this struggle definitely became apparent and obvious. Although I view the relationship between the human mind and nature as an interdependent system, I couldn’t help but see a certain allure in Emerson’s rhetoric, especially when dealing with the roles that nature plays in our world. But even more so, what seemed to deeply trouble me in this sermon was the tension that exists in his argument: on one hand, he seems to posit that nature is an exterior force that obeys the rule of God and that follows a specific uninterrupted pattern; on the other hand, he explicitly mentions that the proper flourishing of plant and natural life depends on cultivation. What we are seeing here is a tension between nature as an independent system with its own sense of meaning, and the notion of nature as a system completely reliant on the human mind. I think this tension is further enhanced by Emerson’s view of nature and plant life as a mechanistic rather than organic entity, as exemplified by his discussion of the apple seed: “The little seed of the apple does not contain the large tree that shall spring from it; it is merely an assimilating engine which has the power to take from the ground whatever particles of water or manure it needs, and turn them to its own substance and give them its own arrangement” (Emerson 12). Note that the apple seed is depicted as an object that is designed to comply with a very specific function: to assimilate surrounding elements in order to promote growth and to provide nourishment for human beings. Note that Emerson goes as far as to denote Nature using spiritual allusions:

Do they not come from Heaven and go like Angels round the globe scattering hope and pleasant toil and recompense and rest? Each righting the seeming disorders, supplying the defects which the former left; converting its refuse into commodity and drawing out of the ancient earth new treasures to swell the capital of human comfort (Emerson 10).

Nature, and specifically the seed, from Emerson’s point of view, is an object with a meaning and a spirit of its own that serves as a commodity to human beings. It is viewed as an external object that follows a specific purpose, and that renders fruit that helps sustain generation after generation.

But, doesn’t our very need for nature’s commodities turn us into Angels as well? Has Emerson failed to see that we humans also scatter hope and recompense, and that it is our labor and willingness to cultivate that the apple seed has survived in the first place? Our very breath provides life to plants; we plant, water, fertilize, and care for plant life. Some plant species even exist solely because of human interest and endeavor—think of the avocado, a plant that has seeds that are too big to be propagated via natural animal consumption and defecation. But realistically speaking, it’s not that Emerson was unwilling to see this side of the coin, but rather, he was binded by the spell of a premodern world, in which science was still viewed as a force incapable of explaining the hows and whys of the natural world. We now take this for granted because we live in a disenchanted world, a world in which the idea of a self-sufficient, mechanistic, and teleological seed makes no sense. But why is it then that Emerson’s notions of humanity and nature seem so alluring and tantalizing? The answer is quite simple: although we may have a deep understanding of how the world works, we have no concrete idea of how and why it all started, and how and why it all exists. Sure, as a believer of science and empirical knowledge, I could simply state that due to a series of events, particles heated up and expanded, creating all matter and space as we know it; but due to the fact that this is all based on theoretical assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove, I am haunted by an everlasting and ever-increasing doubt: what if this is wrong? What if we currently do not have the knowledge or the capacity to even begin to understand the universe? What if I am wrong, and there actually is an entity or creative agent that can be labeled as God? What if nature IS an external agent with an inherent “spirit” designed to comply with a law created by this entity?

Personally speaking, I was disenchanted with religion years ago. But here I am in Notre Dame, and doubts are beginning to surface once again. I wish I can take Emersonian route, be entirely self-reliant on my thoughts and beliefs while paying no attention to outside influences, but is this even remotely possible? I know that disenchantment never really eliminates the influence of the mystical and the magical… despite my lack of religious belief, I must admit that it religion was an important part of my upbringing, and it most likely encoded many of my current values and ideologies. Could it be possible that the remnants of Emerson’s notions are slowly but surely growing in the background? Is it possible that his God-driven, mechanistic, and binary view of the world is but a seed hidden from our view, assimilating elements from our social and cultural environment and growing into a completely different tree? And even if this metaphorical tree will once again rot and wither away, will it not become the soil and the organic matter that is nourishing our current tree of knowledge?

Sources:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0674055322

http://www.amazon.com/Emersons-Poetry-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393967921/

Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization

How Control Exists After Decentralization

Alexander R. Galloway’s Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization is by far one of the most exciting and challenging readings that I have encountered in a long time. In essence, it is a book on issues within the realm of computer science targeted towards individuals who have little or no experience within the field. By focusing his attention on the “institutional ecology” of modern computing, Galloway strives to offer a compelling and insightful look at the aspects of form, structure, and materiality within contemporary technology via the discussion of protocols, which in essence are logical rules (or arguably, formats or templates) of control that govern the exchange of data or information across a network. In due course, Galloway exposes how protocols and the advent of decentralized or distributional networks has shifted how notions such as power and control manifest in society (alluding to Foulcaldian and Deleuzian frameworks), and how their existence creates a paradoxical tension between institutionalization/fixation and freedom/deterritorialization.

Although many of the concepts, ideas, and terminology discussed in this book may seem daunting and baffling to people who don’t have much experience with computer programming, Galloway illustrates complicated concepts using various heuristic aids and metaphors (his depiction of interstate highways and airports to explain how decentralized networks function was particularly illuminating). I also found his application of Marxist, Deleuzian, and Foucauldian theories to be compelling, and it really surprised that this application helped me to better understand concepts that have been fuzzy and inaccessible to me in the past. His discussion of Foucault’s notion of biopower was particularly accessible when applied to protocols, and how they have helped transition control from a centralized presence ruled by physical and violent tendencies into a dispersed and abstract manifestation ruled by information, statistics, and quantitative data.

Given the rapidly changing nature of computer science and technology in general, it should come to no surprise that some of Galloway’s arguments and illustrative examples might seem dated and incorrect (after all, the book was published eight years ago). For instance, at one point Galloway posits that the corporate battles over video formats are moot with the presence of DVD, a format adopted according to a consensus among leaders in the film industry. Nonetheless, shortly after the publication of this book we witnessed the battle between the BluRay video format (led primarily by Sony and their integration of this technology into the Playstation 3) and the now defunct HD DVD format. Not only does this demonstrate the circularity existent within the adoption of modern technology, but it also goes to challenge some of Galloway’s assumptions of how technical standards are determined in contemporary society. Nevertheless, Galloway’s text is definitely illuminating in terms of depicting the idiosyncrasies of protocols and their formal material and social qualities, which in turn will pave the way towards better criticism of technologies, ideas, and networks that are governed by protocological standards.

What immediately came to my mind was whether or not there are non-computational phenomena or manifestations that follow protocological guidelines. For instance, in my past studies in linguistics, language was usually approached as a centralized phenomenon regulated by core apparatuses (universal grammar, broca’s area, etc.). But, how do we explain language production in the case of children who undergo hemispherectomies, and still possess the ability to speak and decode language even when entire parts of the brain are removed? Is it possible that language acquisition, similar to the internet, is also based on decentralized protocological networks? Are there areas within literature and the arts that are also guided by structures and formats similar to protocols? The possibilities are indeed tantalizing.

Check out his book by accessing the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Protocol-Control-Exists-Decentralization-Leonardo/dp/0262572338/